‘What a season!’ begins the chapter on the 1952/53 campaign in ‘Proud Preston‘, Ian Rigby and Mike Payne’s lovingly-written and astoundingly comprehensive history of Preston North End. And they weren’t kidding. Those of you familiar with the premise of the ‘Second Glance’ series will know how this particular story ends, and where Preston finished in the first division that season, but you might not be aware just how close it was.
For this was, depending on how you judge these things with the different methods of splitting teams, the closest season in top-flight history. Managers talk a lot about how goal difference might turn out to be important at the end of the season, but it’s very rarely actually been a factor in deciding the league title; since the very first Football League season in 1888/89, something other than points has only been required to split the top two teams on six occasions. Goal difference won Manchester City the title in 2012, goals scored of course managed it for Arsenal in 1989, while goal average (goals scored divided by goals conceded, kids) decided the top prize in 1924, 1959, 1953 and 1965.
None have come closer than Preston though, who missed the title by one tenth (one tenth!) of a goal, finishing level on points with Arsenal but with a 1.42 goal average, to the Londoners’ 1.52. The only way it could’ve been closer would’ve involved some hanging chads and a questionable Florida electoral system.
A sluggish start to the season saw North End win just four of their first 15 games, to leave them swishing in mid-table obscurity. That run included a couple of results that would eventually prove extremely costly, specifically 5-0 and 5-3 defeats to Manchester Untied and Chelsea respectively, defeats that would ultimately blow a big hole in their goal average. However, this was a team stacked with quality, from centre-forward Charlie Wayman to right-half Tommy Docherty to, of course, the greatest player in Preston’s history and legendary one-club man, Tom Finney.
That nearly wasn’t the case though, as if Finney had got his way the previous year he wouldn’t have been at Deepdale that season, having been tempted to Italy by a colossal transfer offer from Palermo. ‘Prince Roberto Lanza di Trabia, Palermo’s millionaire president,’ wrote Finney in his autobiography, ‘was prepared to pay me £130 a month in wages (plus win bonuses of up to £100, provide me with a Mediterranean villa and brand new Italian sports car, and pay for the family to fly over as often as they wished.’ Throw in a £10,000 signing-on fee, and at a time when the maximum wage in England was £20-a-week and when players asked for a pay rise they were usually given pretty short shrift, it didn’t take Finney long to accept these terms.
However, obtaining Preston’s permission for the move was a different matter, and when Finney approached club chairman Nat Buck he received a fairly unequivocal, almost cartoonishly northern response. “Tom, I’m sorry, but the whole thing is out of the question,” Finney recounts Buck as saying, “Absolutely out of the question. We are not interested in selling you and that’s that. Listen to me, if tha’ doesn’t play for Preston then tha’ doesn’t play for anybody.”
So tha’ did carry on at Deepdale, and after that initial iffy spell Preston went on a storming run, winning ten of their next 12 games to see them perch atop the table by the middle of February. That run saw a Wayman in terrific form, notching eight of the 23 goals that would eventually see him finish joint top-scorer in the division. Wayman was described by Brian Glanville as ‘one of the finest and most effective centre-forwards in the decade after the Second World War’, although he has a reasonable shout to be one of the unluckiest players of the time too; while playing for Southampton in 1950 he missed out on promotion by an even narrower margin than Preston failed by, falling an agonising 0.07 goals short on goal average.
One tragic incident in that run came in their win over Sheffield Wednesday in February, when Owls forward Derek Dooley suffered an injury that led to his right leg being amputated. Dooley collided with Preston keeper George Thompson while chasing a through ball and fractured his shin bone; not a career-ending ailment even in 1953, but just as he was due to be released from hospital he asked a nurse to sign his cast, when she noticed nurse there was no reaction in his toes on that leg. It was discovered that a small scratch on the back of his leg had become infected, possibly from a chemical in the white line markings on the pitch, gangrene had set in and his leg was amputated just above the knee.
By mid-April, after a couple of Preston wobbles including another heavy defeat at the hands of Manchester United, Arsenal had overcome a stumble of their own and were firmly back in the mix, along with a number of other clubs including Burnley, Wolves and West Brom. Going into the closing weeks of the season it looked like Arsenal would canter to the title, five straight wins putting them ahead and with three games in hand on those around them. However, as the end was in sight they wobbled, drawing with mid-table Cardiff before the penultimate fixture would set up an extraordinary close to the campaign.
‘With two games each left to play, we did give them one hell of a fright,’ wrote Finney. ‘They held a two-point lead and the next fixture up? Arsenal at Deepdale! It was the biggest league game of my career, played out in front of close on 40,000, and it came at a time when I was arguably producing my very best form. I think they call it peaking. The Gunners needed only to avoid defeat to claim the title…So the Pretenders entertained the Aristocrats with the world watching. The atmosphere inside Deepdale was electric and the media reckoned much hinged on whether Arsenal full-back Lionel Smith could put the shackles on me.’
The answer to that question would be a rather resounding ‘no.’ The Times described the great winger as a ‘will-o’-the-wisp and a nightmare in one to the harassed Smith, whose telescopic left leg on this occasion was left groping vainly for the substance.’ Finney twisted his theoretical marker’s blood for half an hour, before the befuddled defender ‘used his leg much as a Lowland shepherd might use his crook to stop a runaway sheep, and pitched Finney onto his face in the penalty area’, according to the Guardian. Finney dusted himself down and slotted the penalty home.
From that point Preston went for the jugular, attacking relentlessly but it took until the 70th minute for them the breach the Arsenal defence again, Wayman shifting his feet in the area before firing home to seal a 2-0 win and bring the sides level on 52 points at the top of the table. So all would be on their respective final games; for Preston, a trip to relegation-threatened Derby the following Wednesday, while Arsenal played erstwhile title-contenders Burnley, now out of the running and indifferently slotted into fifth place, two days later.
Preston did their bit, another penalty from Finney (who was a doubt for the game with a groin problem) sealing a 1-0 victory as dogged as the Arsenal game was emphatic, the defeat consigning Derby to relegation. Now all eyes turned to Highbury, the Preston players watching on, nervous and helpless, to see if their final surge would be worthwhile.
For a spell it looked like it would, a waterlogged pitch making play difficult and, despite an early Arsenal barrage, Burnley took the lead through Roy Stephenson. The advantage barely lasted a minute though, as an Alex Forbes effort deflected home by Jimmy Logie drew them level, before just three minutes later Doug Lishman gave them the lead. Logie added a third just before half-time, and once again it looked like Arsenal were cruising, but once again they were made to work for it. ‘Burnley’ wrote a Times correspondent who may or may not have been a frustrated thespian, ‘fought tooth and nail to the end on a quagmire of a pitch. They fought for their brothers at Preston, for themselves, and for the fourth position in the league that victory would have brought them.’ Billy Elliott (seriously) pulled one back 15 minutes from time and the closing stages were so tense that Arsenal manager Tom Whittaker supposedly couldn’t watch and retreated to the dressing room, but Lancashire solidarity couldn’t extend to another goal, Arsenal won and Preston were crestfallen, edged from glory by that razor-thin margin.
‘It was heartbreaking to come within a decimal point or two of the biggest prize,’ wrote Finney, ‘and the fact that we had played a major role in a thrilling finale to a magnificent season was little consolation. It was heartbreaking, but not tragic.’
What happened next
Preston followed up their nearly season in the league with a similar tale in the FA Cup the next season, reaching Wembley but losing the final 3-2 to West Brom. Finney retired in 1960, having played all of his 433 senior club games for North End, but they were relegated the following season and have never been back to the top flight.
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