Preston North End were founded back in 1863, but originally as a cricket club. In 1875 they moved to Deepdale (which remains their home ground to this day), but didn’t play their first game of football until 1878. They even dabbled, largely unsuccessfully, with rugby union prior to that point.
They were soon to become a professional club and were able to demonstrate the strength of their resources in the FA Cup of 1887. In a first round match they defeated Hyde by the incredible scoreline of 26-0. That remains a record winning margin by any team in English first-class, organised football.
The club were to become founder members of the Football League, winning the very first competition in 1888-89. During the season they played 22 league matches, winning 18 and drawing only 4. Their unbeaten season was not to be repeated by any side in England’s top flight until the Arsenal team coached by Arsene Wenger were able to replicate the feat more recently.
In that sort of form, the title was never in doubt. The side scored 74 goals during the season, with the prolific John Goodall recording 22 of them. A successful season was capped with victory in the FA Cup final, a 3-0 victory against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Goodall played in the final but, perhaps surprisingly, didn’t score that day.
The following season, expectations were understandably high. Defending both competitions was, however, to prove more difficult.
The league season started triumphantly with a 10-0 thrashing of Stoke City. A repeat of the previous season’s unbeaten march to the title seemed likely, but expectations were to come crashing down in the second match. A trip to Aston Villa saw another high scoring affair, but it was the home side who were to emerge victorious in a 5-3 thriller. Preston were to be in a fight for the title.
Regulation victories against Burnley, West Bromwich Albion and Bolton Wanderers were to put the side in the driving seat. But the end of October was to bring back-to-back defeats. Firstly, a 2-1 loss at the hands of Derby County dented hopes. What followed was a 2-0 home defeat, inflicted by Wolverhampton Wanderers. It was clear that the path to the title would be far more complicated this time around.
By the end of November, however, a run of six consecutive victories had given cause for optimism. A home draw with Blackburn Rovers, followed by a further home defeat (this time at the hands of Everton) meant that a return to form would be needed in the closing fixtures.
When Lincoln City arrived for an FA Cup tie in January, Preston duly triumphed 4-0. The cup campaign, at least, had started in an untroubled fashion. By mid-February dream of repeating the league and cup double were to be left in ruins, as Bolton Wanderers won 3-2 at Deepdale to dump Preston out of the cup.
Improved form in the run-in did, at least, allow the club to retain the league title. A 1-0 away win at Notts County enabled Preston to finish with 33 points, two ahead of Everton.
Having won the first two league titles available, Preston were to be forced to wait to see anything close to such glories. In the following 3 seasons, the side finished runners-up on each occasion (first to Everton and then twice to Sunderland). The 1891 season saw the team struggle for goals, with Hugh Gallacher top scoring, despite only recording 6 all year.
By 1894, the good times were rapidly disappearing from view. The team were defeated no fewer than 17 times that season, narrowly avoiding relegation. As Darwen and Newton Heath dropped out of the top flight, Preston were left to breathe something of a sigh of relief.
Despite a couple of better seasons, it was clear that the club were on a downward trajectory. In 1901, a dire season was to bring relegation to Division 2. Having taken only 25 points from 34 games, Preston were left to look up at former rivals.
Many expected Preston to bounce back, but their fall from grace wasn’t yet complete. In their first season in the Second Division, they simply couldn’t compete with eventual champions West Bromwich Albion and Middlesbrough, who were to finish 2nd. As well as missing out on promotion, the team were to be dumped out of the FA Cup by Manchester City, following defeat in a second replay.
The following year saw Preston finish in their lowest league position to date: 7th in the Second Division. Defeated on 11 separate occasions, Preston finished between Chesterfield and Barnsley in that year’s final table. The heady days of the title-winning sides seemed a long time ago.
But 1904 was to see something of an unexpected resurgence. Powered by top scorer Percy Smith’s 26 league goals, Preston were to take the Second Division by storm. Beaten on just 4 occasions during the season, they were to finish above Woolwich Arsenal and Manchester United. A return to the top table had been secured.