Each day we are bringing you an exclusive interview from one of our former Player of the Year winners and today we focus on the 1991 recipient Jeff Wrightson.
Over the course of five years at Deepdale, Jeff made just short of 200 appearances in a PNE shirt whilst the club played in the Third Division and he spoke to Tom Rawcliffe this week.
It was in his penultimate season which Jeff was handed the award for his strong performances at the spine of a team which included the likes of Warren Joyce, Alan Kelly Junior and Lee Cartwright.
Jeff told PNE.Com: “There was a lot of really, really talented players playing in that side. I think you could have thrown a net over the starting eleven and could have picked five or six that would have been eligible and credible to win Player of the Year so to come out on top and achieve it is very humbling and very inspiring. I was proud to be recognised as the Player of the Year for Preston.
“I go there regularly scouting with Crystal Palace now. I go up to the Greats’ Room and every time I go for a cup of tea I look at the board and I see my name there and it’s a huge feeling of pride. I remember when I first saw it, I took a photograph and sent it back to the children and the family letting them see, reminding them of such a good feeling.
“Preston’s a huge, huge club so to be recognised on their hall of fame if you like and say that you were actually Player of the Year in that season is very special.
“There’ll always be a massive place in my heart for North End, my professional career was at Preston North End so I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. 160-odd league games, I only got to four goals but I can remember every single one of them and like I said I just love going back. I still feel the pains and sufferings of playing on that astroturf all the time. I’ve got the wear and tear on my knees, on my ankles and my back but I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Prior to his move to join John McGrath’s side in 1987, Jeff grew up as a Newcastle schoolboy and progressed into their senior team, winning the Youth Cup along the way in the era of Paul Gascoigne.
Jeff said: “Gazza was as mad then if not madder than he was to the public. We had loads and loads of stories and good times and holidays together when we were young lads so we experienced some wonderful things. He was just an absolute diamond of a lad who just wanted to be the centre of attention and wanted to smile and have people laugh and put smiles on faces.
“On the footballing side of it he was a talented individual but it was a matter of time before he was being released by the club until a new manager came in and the rest is history. He took a shine to Paul and took him under his wing, gave a little bit of TLC and Paul thrived on it.
“He loved being the centre of attention and Jack Charlton gave him that attention and he just blossomed and blossomed and all of a sudden he was the best player we’ve produced in this country for many, many years.”
Jeff was released by Newcastle after making four professional appearances for the North East club and it was Toon legend Joe Harvey who contacted PNE manager John McGrath and advised him to sign young Wrightson.
After becoming a North End player, Jeff originally struggled to break into ‘the solicitors’, a nickname given to the strong defensive unit of Sam Allardyce, Bob Atkins and Alex Jones, but became more involved as the season wore on.
Jeff said: “I think it was just the transition because I’d left home at 18, I was a young boy. I’d only played a few games at Newcastle and I hadn’t been in and around the first team as such in training but then all of a sudden you’re thrust into this position where you’re at a football club who have just been successful the previous season and you’re with some seasoned, experienced, established professionals.
“Coming to terms with day-to-day training with them, just that environment is new and it took a while for me to settle. I remember the pre-season I really struggled; I didn’t have a very good pre-season at all. I was on the bench for a lot of the games and obviously breaking up the defence that was there when I got there was a difficult task in itself anyway.
“It was towards the second half of the season that I started to come in. I’m not sure if it was the end of that season or the following season I got the Young Player of the Year award or the most promising youngster and that gave us a bit of a boost. I remember coming in the following season and I was really strong and positive in the pre-season training and I got off to a good start. I think it took us a while to settle but I’m glad I did eventually.”
Once that next campaign did come along Jeff soon became a key part of a side which battled it out for a promotion place and earned a Play-Off spot after just four losses in their final 21 matches, though the season was brought to a close with defeat over two legs to Port Vale.
He recalled: “I think it took North End maybe that first season to get settled in the league after coming up the previous season. They did well to get themselves in that position then to go and get in the Play-Offs. Unfortunately it didn’t come off for us but it was a good experience and we got some good times from there.
“It’s really difficult losing but the euphoria of winning via the Play-Offs is an unbelievable experience. After leaving North End I teamed up with Bogsie (Ian Bogie) at Gateshead and Ian was the manager, I was assistant and we got back-to-back promotions via Play-Offs.
“The whole season comes to hinge potentially on one game or even 45 minutes of a second half so it is a massive adrenaline and euphoria of winning and obviously devastation to lose it. But it is what it is. It’s as good as it is for the winners as it is bad for the losers but that’s football, you win or you lose. But I’d rather have been in them Play-Offs and lose them than not be in them.”
The next campaign proved to be very different for North End as they lingered towards the other end of the table and only actually sealed their fate on the final day as they retained their place in the division with a win at Shrewsbury.
“You look back over the history of the season, forty-six games, and it’s not just on that one game. You have to remember the points and things that you achieved before that. Yes it was the last game that kept us in the league but overall you look at earlier games and think ‘well that could have been the decision that kept us up’.
“It could have been a different game that we won or drew or didn’t concede as many goals in defeat so there’s a multitude of reasons why you are where you are. It’s a big day and a big occasion to stay up but it’s part and parcel of football. Things like Play-Offs and relegation is such a big thing in the game now.”
One of Jeff’s most memorable moments in a North End shirt came in his final season for the club when he managed to find the back of the net in pretty spectacular circumstances in a 5-4 victory over Scarborough.
“It was bizarre,” laughed Jeff. “It was the Rumbelows Cup at the time because I remember I got Man of the Match for that game and I remember going into the shopping centre a couple of days later and I got the television as the reward.
“The goal itself I think the goalkeeper’s cleared it and it’s come to the halfway line, somebody’s competed for a header and it’s dropped and I’ve just stepped onto it and probably defensively just cleared my lines and it’s gone in!
“I keep winding the kids up saying before David Beckham came onto the scene and did it I did it there. It was a bit fortunate but I’ll take it because I only got four goals for North End.”
Jeff was let go by the club in 1992 when he wasn’t offered a new contract and after that he went on to have successful spells closer to home with Gateshead both in a playing and managerial capacity.
For the last ten years, though, he has been scouting for Premier League side Crystal Palace which often gives him an excuse to come back to Deepdale.
Jeff said: “I love coming to a North End fixture because obviously you get such a good welcome there, it’s a great feeling going back. I know the routes like the back of my hand. Driving in there to the place where we park past the big park, it’s just a great feeling driving to North End.
“Like I say I get such a nice welcome when I get there. The people on the desk remember us, I go upstairs and see the pictures on the wall, my name on the board, it’s great I love it. They can’t do enough for you. It’s a massive, massive family club and I really couldn’t speak more highly of it.”
To watch and read all our Player of the Year interviews, go to our special section of the website by clicking here and then you can hear from the likes of Youl Mawene, Mark Lawrenson, John Welsh and Aiden McGeady.