Home of England’s first champions and arguably best-ever player, Preston has history in spades. For good reason, this former mill town was chosen to host the National Football Museum, later controversially moved to Manchester in 2012.
The history they can’t take away is embedded into the fabric of the city. Preston North End not only topped the inaugural Football League in 1888 – they went through the season unbeaten, doing the Double without even conceding a goal in the cup.
The club thus became ‘The Invincibles’, the town ‘Proud Preston’. Into this tradition, one street from the club’s long-term home of Deepdale, Tom Finney was born. The son of a plumber, Finney famously kept practising his trade as he rose to become one of the finest players to don an England shirt – if not the finest.
Three times a runner-up in league and cup – Preston’s last major honour came in 1938 – one-club Finney is honoured with a statue outside Deepdale.
Last seen in the top flight the season after Finney retired, 1960-61, Preston remain fourth in England’s all-time four-division table.
The Preston William Sudell was born into was described by one visitor, Karl Marx, as ‘the next St Petersburg’. Beneath the mill chimneys, industrial unrest was dealt with by armed soldiers – another contemporary visitor, Charles Dickens, used it as his backdrop for ‘Hard Times’. Born in 1850, the son of a guild mayor, Sudell joined a newly formed sports club at 16, became its chairman on the strength of his experience in the office of a local mill.
With Sudell in the team, this club, Preston North End, played a first football match in 1878. With Sudell in charge, PNE quickly ditched cricket, rugby and cycling entirely.
Sudell was all for a professional approach and he knew where he could find it: Scotland. He went north of the border to recruit players long versed in the passing game, offering them off-the-books wages from the mill, a hidden form of professionalism that was found out after an FA Cup game with West Ham in 1884. The row threatened to divide the game before professionalism was accepted, with caveats, by the amateur clubs of the south.
Now manager, Sudell introduced tactics and had the Scots players to implement them. Sudell’s Preston duly beat Hyde 26-0 in the FA Cup, a record that stands to this day. A year later, Preston embarked on their legendary unbeaten campaign to win the first Football League, and Double.
Sudell was later found to be funnelling thousands of pounds from the mill accounts to his belovéd Invincibles. Imprisoned and disgraced, he spent his last years in South Africa, writing rugby reports.
Sudell had practically created Preston North End and, more than anyone, professional football in England. The Deepdale Farm pitch he first graced in 1878 has been the club’s ground ever since.
Later it would host Bill Shankly and George Mutch – both Scots internationals, both members of Preston’s last cup-winning side of 1938 – and, of course, Tom Finney.
In a rare show of pique, the modest, unassuming Finney, OBE, CBE, Sir Tom, withdrew his priceless collection of mementoes from the National Football Museum after its relocation out of Preston. And while the NMF president is Sir Bobby Charlton, and Manchester United top that all-time four-division table, Finney certainly had a point.
With Blackpool yet to be operational again, the two nearest airports to Preston are each about 70km (44 miles) away: Manchester and Liverpool. From Manchester airport, a train every 30min runs to Preston (online from £7, journey time 1hr). From Liverpool Lime Street, an hourly service to Preston (online from £8) takes 1hr. From London Euston, it’s either 2hr or 3hr direct, online tickets from around £80.
Preston station is on Fishergate, the bus station on Tithebarn Street, each on either side of the city centre. Deepdale is at the north end of town. Local transport is run by prestonbus, tickets £1.40-£1.80, EasiReturn £3.50, EasiDay £3.75, all correct change only. Stagecoach buses run further afield.
Millers City Cars (01772 884 000) is a long-established taxi service, also offering airport transfers.
The nearest lodging to the stadium is the Whitburn House Hotel, just across Moor Park from Deepdale. A nicely appointed guesthouse in a Victorian building, with rooms from single to family.
Further along Blackpool Road in the opposite direction to the stadium, the St Andrew’s House Hotel (No.518, 01772 720 580) is in need of renovation, and probably better passed over for the nearby three-star Claremont Hotel, a friendly B&B in pleasant gardens, with its own bar and lounge. It’s about 25min walk from the ground – the No.31 bus runs halfway there, up Blackpool Road.
In town, the Premier Inn Preston Central is a large, modern budget on Fox Street – turn right and follow the ring road for the bus station, and stadium buses, after the junction with North Road.
Where the M55 bypass meets Garstang Road into town, the two-star ibis Preston North is a well equipped budget choice. Stagecoach bus Nos.4C, 40 and 41 run from Garstang Road to the junction of Blackpool Road near the stadium. Further north, the Barton Grange Hotel is a popular choice for weddings, set in an old manor house with its own grounds. A swimming pool, mini gym and walled garden bistro provide for an ideal weekend break. Stagecoach bus Nos.40, 40A and 41 head towards Garstang Road, then down to the junction of Blackpool Road near the stadium.
Many of Preston’s old pubs have fallen by the wayside as modern chains take over – twofers and drinks deals cater to the significant student population in term-time.
On Fishergate, right opposition the train station, the Old Vic is a real ale haunt with stone floors providing a traditional atmosphere. A big screen is a welcome leftover from Euro 2016.
On Friargate, the Old Black Bull has several flat-screen TVs and a large projector for match action, plus occasional live music, washed down with pints of Moretti, Hardy & Hanson Best or Timothy Taylor Landlord. The nearby Grey Friar, a Wetherspoon, also has a large projector. Heralded as Preston’s last real pub, Ye Olde Blue Bell (114 Church Street) is as honest as it gets, a cosy local serving top-notch ale.
At a great location on the banks of the Ribble, The Continental is the best live venue in town, with quality ale and food. A beer garden and marquee accommodate rock, indie and punk crowds.
Also with a waterfront setting, overlooking the docks, the food-focused Ribble Pilot is a Marston’s pub full of fine ales, close to a heritage steam railway attraction. Frequent bus No.88C connects Docklands with Preston train and bus stations.