Steve Wilkes said he felt blessed to be a part of Sir Tom Finney’s memorial at Deepdale on Saturday, as Preston North End paid tribute to the club’s most famous son.
The former Lilywhites defender, who made his debut in the 3-0 derby defeat to Blackpool at Bloomfield Road in September 1987, attended the League One fixture against Leyton Orient to pay his respects, after Padiham’s clash with Kendal Town,for whom Finney had been President, was postponed.
Wilkes took in the poignancy of the occasion - admiring the shrine outside the stadium where Finney has been immortalised in the form of the iconic ‘Splash’ statue - before filtering into the ground among the thousands of spectators.
“I shed a tear on Friday when I heard on Sky Sports News,” he said.
“It’s sad and it’s an era we’ll never get back.
“He’s left a lasting legacy though. I love that iconic ‘Splash’ image of him.
“I went to watch Preston and pay my respects to him.
“I haven’t been on for a few years so it was good to get back.
“It was a very emotional afternoon. All the players had ‘Finney’ on their shirts which was a nice touch.
“I was pleased to have the chance to be there and sit in the Sir Tom Finney Stand.
“There was a minute silence, which was impeccable, then in the seventh minute the crowd stood up and applauded.
“And in the final few minutes the whole stadium was chanting his name. It was a great occasion.”
Wilkes remembers almost every moment spent in the company of the Preston and England legend, stating that there wasn’t enough superlatives in the English language to define the great man.
The Preston plumber, knighted in the 1998 Queen’s New Year Honours, made more than 500 appearances for his hometown team, but retained a strong affiliation with the club even after his playing days were over.
“I knew him quite well,” said Wilkes.
“He was a top bloke. Everyone has commented on how much of a gentleman he was.
“That’s what he was - a gentleman and an exceptional football player.
“That’s how he’ll be remembered.
“The first time I met him I was 10 and he came to present my cubs group with trophies.
“I was stood there with my mouth wide open in absolute awe of this man.
“Even at that age everybody knew who he was.
“When I was at Preston between 1986 and 88 he used to come and watch training.
“He always used to be around the ground.
“He would always stop and speak to the players.
“He always remembered your name as well, even though I didn’t play too many times for Preston.
“I just can’t speak highly enough of him.”
Wilkes added: “He did a question and answer session with Howard Kendall during my first spell at Padiham as well. He was terrific.
“There were no heirs or graces about him, even after he became ‘Sir’.
“That said a lot about the man.
“It says something as well that all clubs around the country honoured him with a one minute silence before games.
“Even the biggest clubs in the country observed it.
“That showed how good a player he was.”