Published Date:27 June 2009
By Tony Dewhurst
Eric Snookes thumbs through a dog-eared old scrapbook, and laughs out loud when he runs his finger over a faded newspaper cutting, recording his Preston North End debut.
‘Brighton 2, PNE 0. Ernie shines alone for PNE at the Goldstone,’ reads the headline.
“They even got my name wrong,” he giggled. “I suppose you could call me Preston’s nearly man.”
The rather ominous report painted a gloomy picture of Preston’s relegation dogfight on that March afternoon towards the conclusion of the 1972-73 campaign.
‘Sad North End continued their depressing run of 11 games without a win with this uninspiring display,’ added the correspondent.
‘Poor Preston looked a despondent outfit.
‘They badly missed skipper Alan Spavin in midfield and the touchline fire of former manager Alan Ball senior.
“Preston boss Frank Lord could only single out 18-year-old debutant Snookes for praise.’
“I remember the day was nerve-wracking, a total haze, but it seems like yesterday,” he recalls. “It wasn’t fear. It was an intense anticipation and the pride of playing for the famous Preston North End.
“Preston were fighting to stay in the division and the pressure was on, but I did okay.
“After the game, the late Jim McNab, whose place I’d taken, said, ‘Snookesy son, the way you played today, I’ll never get back in the team’.
“I never forgot that, bless his soul. What a good professional.
“There he was encouraging and giving advice to a kid who was a threat to his position in the team.
“That’s a good man, one of the best, he was. That wouldn’t happen now – they wouldn’t want to know you because the game is too selfish.
“Football was perhaps a rougher and more unforgiving world, but they looked after you then and there were more characters about.”
Eric was a boy of 15-and-a-half when he came to Deepdale.
“I lived at 11, Moor Park Avenue, the North End players’ hostel,” he said.
“Five of us shared a room – Tony Morley, Jim Blyth, Stuart Baxter, who now manages Finland, Colin Schofield and me.
“We had a great bond, a terrific camaraderie, but you never get those times back.
“It was an incredibly special time in my life.
“The first-team lads took me to the Bull and Royal in town, sat me in a corner and bought me a foaming pint.
“I’d never been in a pub but they made me feel so welcome.
“When you’re that age you’ve got blinkers on – you don’t think it will ever end.
“You just carry on, thinking you’ll be okay.
“You never imagine that time will catch up on you, and one day it’s ‘Oh My God. I can’t run anymore’.
“Then they get rid of you, throw you out into the real world. It is bye-bye, no matter how many games you’ve played for a club.
“You’d never done a proper job because football was your life. I was finished at 29 because my Achilles was wrecked and I didn’t have a job to go to.
“I watch some of the old games on television and I think ‘How the heck did they get away with that?’ But it is a more cut-throat game today.”
The flame-haired youngster appeared in the last seven games of the season and played a starring role in their last game at home to Burnley.
North End needed a point to beat the drop while a draw would ensure the Second Division Championship for the Clarets in front of a passionate 21,000 crowd.
“A couple of days before, Frank Lord telephoned the Fire Brigade at Preston and asked them to bring a couple tenders down to flood the pitch.
“Burnley had a flying winger called Leighton James, who played for Wales – and Lord wanted to make the pitch as heavy as possible and it did the trick.
“He also narrowed the touchlines in as far as they could go – and then I got the job of marking James.
“Alex Bruce fired PNE in front, before Colin Waldron levelled it after an hour.
“After that it was like, ‘Show us the ball and we’ll kick it out, that will do’ – and it finished 1-1.”
He showed enough skill in Birmingham schools football to draw the attention of a host of clubs.
“When I left school I was all set to sign for Aston Villa,” he said. “But then Peter Docherty left the club, and the deal fell through.”
Docherty did not forget Snookes when he moved on to Deepdale as assistant to the late Alan Ball senior, who led Preston to the old Third Division Championship in 1971.
“Alan Ball was a tough taskmaster – a hard man,” he says. “He wasn’t frightened to tell you what he thought of you and he did.
“About your personality, the way you played or your lifestyle.
“Some lads couldn’t handle it – others could. I didn’t mind it – I rose to the challenge. If you gave Alan Ball everything then he wouldn’t let anybody say anything about you.
“He was very loyal and I had a lot of respect for him.
“I suppose he was a bit of a rum fella and he’d sometimes arrive at training wearing dark glasses.
“He’d been out for a drink in Preston, and a fan had said something to him about the team and it had ended up in a punch-up.
“He was such a fiercely competitive man and he’d tell us tales about how he’d play draughts with his son, Alan junior, but they’d never finish the game.
“The one who was losing would just throw the board up in the air and charge out of the room because neither of them could bear the thought of defeat.
“But that’s how Alan Ball wanted you to be – defeat was out of the question. Deep down, he was a good man.
“I remember the day I signed, my mum and dad came with me to Deepdale.
“We were shown into the manager’s office, but he had nipped out.
“When he returned my mum was sat in his chair with the manager sign above her head and he just burst out laughing.”
While Snookes witnessed the abrasiveness of Ball’s fire-and-brimstone character, when Bobby Charlton, the former Manchester United and England legend came to Deepdale, the dressing room environment changed.
“Bobby was a very nice man, probably too nice to be a manager,” he said.
“I think the Preston people thought he’d come in and work miracles but it was a disaster for Bobby. He was a World Cup winner, had played at the very top of his profession and possibly expected players to do what he did.
“We couldn’t do that because he was in a different league to us – a truly special footballer.
“Unlike today when every player has an agent, you never got to know anything then.
“There was speculation in a Sunday newspaper that Liverpool wanted to sign me for £40,000, so I plucked up the courage to go in and see Bobby Charlton.
“I said, ‘Boss. What’s all this about Liverpool?’ – Bobby just shook his head and told me that he had had no offers from Liverpool.
“He asked, ‘Do you not want to play for Preston any more?’ – I’d gone in to find something out and came out apologising.
“I played with Francis Burns, David Sadler and Nobby Stiles, and Nobby was just different class.
“Nobby didn’t take any prisoners on the pitch, but he was a fantastic passer and didn’t get the credit for his ability because he had forged such a fearsome reputation as one of football’s hard men.
“He was a very instinctive player, but if you said, ‘Nobby, take him out’ – he did.
“I was extremely disappointed when Bobby Charlton let me go, and I’m convinced that he allowed too many decent players to leave and I think it contributed to Preston’s rapid decline.”
But Snookes, who these days works on the railways and is an active member of the PNE former players’ association, did not go far. After a spell with Crewe, he spent three seasons at Southport, went to Rochdale, where he made nearly 200 appearances, and concluded his professional career with Bolton Wanderers.
“Southport were struggling to stay alive at the bottom of Division Four, and always fighting re-election,” he said.
“Things were so tight I can remember cheques bouncing on pay-day.
“I lived in a hotel on the seafront one of the directors owned, but I had my best career spell at Rochdale.
“I played out of my skin there and Carlisle bid £60,000 – but I stayed at Spotland.
“Looking back, though, nothing could replace the magic of playing for Preston and enjoying that special camaraderie at Deepdale.
“I go back to Deepdale now and again and when I do I recall those special days in my life.
“I’d do it all again if I could because I had a wonderful time.
“I did like a pint and a cigarette, like a lot of lads then, but I was always committed to the cause and I am proud to still call Preston my home.”