Our latest chat with one of our former Player of the Year winners ahead of our 5,000th game comes with Don O’Riordan, who picked up the award in 1982 and reflects on his time at PNE with Tom Rawcliffe.
The Irishman came close to 200 appearances in PNE’s defensive line during his five-year stint at Deepdale which saw him work under the likes of Nobby Stiles and Tommy Docherty.
Forty-six of those games came in the 1981/82 campaign which resulted in Don picking up the aforementioned award for his performances in North End’s first season back in Division Three after relegation.
Don told PNE.Com: “To get an award from your fans you kind of feel like you’ve given something back, though I wouldn’t have tried any more or any less that year after the relegation.
“It was just fantastic to be getting an award from the people who pay to see you week in week out and to know that they thought so much of you for that season was a marvellous feeling.
“You’ve gone from the devastation of going down to the following season to getting that award which really helped me a lot and brought more confidence back that was previously there.
“Players will always say it, but it really is the people around you that help to make you into a good player as well – it’s not just how you perform. Most fans are similar, they want to see a guy who’s going to go out onto that pitch and going to give 100 per cent every game no matter what the weather is, who the opponents are and I’d like to think that people had that opinion of me. At Preston I felt it was recognition of the effort I gave in every game and it was very much appreciated really.”
Things could have been very different over the course of Don’s career, though, had he decided to give up when he was 'crying every night' while on trial at Derby County as a 14-year-old.
As it turned out, Don worked through the homesickness and was persuaded to join the then First Division champions under Brian Clough. Tommy Docherty soon took over, though, and it wasn’t too long before Don was sent across the Atlantic to play for Tulsa Roughnecks prior to his move to PR1.
He explained: “I had a really good season there; I played every minute of every game. It was an amazing experience playing against the hero of my entire childhood Franz Beckenbauer. I played against him and man-marked him would you believe which was like ten Christmases coming together all at once.
“I then got a telephone call from Alan Kelly who I knew from the Irish international scene because I was in the squad a few times but never made my debut. But he knew me, contacted me and said ‘we want to sign you and we’re prepared to pay money’ so I went up to Preston and met Nobby in his office.
“We had a chat and I very quickly decided that I wanted to sign for Preston. He came across as a really nice guy. I enjoyed playing there and living there. It’s such a great location I feel for the North West, even the lake district and things like that.
“I’ll always remember Nobby never showed his hand, basically he wouldn’t tell you the team. We’d go to the hotel next to the bus station and we’d be sitting round the table and Nobby would go round and kind of go ‘Don you can have chips’, then to the next person ‘you can have chips’ and basically that’s when you knew you weren’t playing – that was his way of dropping you, it was unbelievable. Thankfully I didn’t have chips too often!”
Unfortunately Don’s last memories of playing under Stiles aren’t particularly happy ones as PNE were relegated to the Third Division in 1981.
He said: “If you look at my career there’s been a few more relegations than I would like to claim but that was my first as a player and it was devastating, there’s no doubt about it.
“There’s no words I don’t think that you can use to describe how a player feels. Any decent professional who says they aren’t bothered about getting relegated is telling you lies. You never think you’re bad enough – it really hits home and knocks you for six.
“We probably should’ve done better and didn’t. These memories are ones you kind of push to the back of your memory or to the side because you just feel devastated about them. It’s just the initial impact is the fact that you’re just gutted and that you’ve let yourself down, your team down and your fans down. It definitely wasn’t nice but we just had to get on with it and try and repair the damage I suppose.”
Following the disappointment of that season came Don’s award-winning campaign, though the summer before had started with relative uncertainty.
He recalled: “I was on holiday and I got the Sunday People and one of the first things I looked at was the gossip column and the first thing I read was ‘Tommy Docherty takes over at Preston’. It was one of them where you thought ‘oh my god no’.
“The Doc had a reputation of once he gets rid of you as a player you’ll never last another day kind of thing. I just thought it’s either going to be one of two things, it’s either he’s going to keep you or get rid of you and it looks like he’s going to get rid of you because he’s already got rid of you before.
“Everything was nicey nicey at pre-season ‘how are you gaffer’, ‘how are you Donald’, nothing really said but the next thing is he calls me in after two weeks and I could see the house up for sale already. But he says ‘have a read of that’ and there was a new two-year contract on the table and he said ‘I want to make you captain’.
“Even then you’re still not sure that the Doc is telling the truth! He was that type of guy: you didn’t know if he was winding you up. But yeah, he had made me captain and a new contract with improved terms, so I had made the impression I suppose in pre-season which was great. It was an amazing turnaround but the Doc was larger than life.”
Following that summer, O’Riordan spent two more seasons with PNE before he moved to Carlisle United on a free transfer.
Many supporters may remember Don’s return to Deepdale in 1994 as player-manager of Torquay United in the Division Three Play-Offs, as John Beck’s side overcame a two-nil defeat from the first leg to reach Wembley.
Don said: “The saddest memory I suppose would be the Play-Off against Preston the year they went to Wembley and got beaten by Wycombe. That was a hugely disappointing experience the second leg. We felt we were kind of mugged with the Paul Raynor incident being so significant that night.
“It was an interesting game that second leg, I’d actually missed the first because I’d had a hernia operation but I was available for the second and I played in that game. We all had our tracksuit bottoms on to avoid burning our skin on the plastic pitch and I remember the fans on the pitch celebrating and ripping the pitch up it was quite incredible.
“There were a lot of tears that night because we’d missed out on the chance to go to Wembley but I suppose in one sense if I was going to lose at that stage it would be good if it was to a former club and Preston were going to Wembley, but unfortunately they couldn’t make it over the line against Wycombe.”
That was Don’s first real taste of management and since then he’s been truly all over the place, having had spells in Ireland, USA and China.
After spending the best part of ten years in Asia, Don has been back home in Ireland for the past six years now and has managed to keep busy even during lockdown offering coaching sessions to children via video chat.
For all our other Player of the Year interviews, click here, to take you to all the ones published so far and keep checking back every day for a new one!