Welcome to Last Word on Football’s ‘Returning Players’ series. In this edition, we take a look at Gareth Ainsworth, who played in three separate stints for Preston North End.
The current Wycombe Wanderers boss hasn’t just had success as a manager – he was a pretty impressive player too, playing for over ten clubs and racking up over 500 appearances.
One club that he couldn’t help coming back to though was Preston North End and after a shaky start with the Lilywhites, he cemented himself as a solid player during his second stint with the side before adding a third spell with them later on down the line.
Returning Players – Gareth Ainsworth
First Spell At Preston
It was Preston North End who gave Gareth Ainsworth his break in professional football. Having played some football for Northwich Victoria, he happened to catch the eye of North End, who were then in the Third Division.
They snapped him up, willing to give the youngster a chance to try his luck higher up the football pyramid.
However, at such a young age, he failed to make much of an impact and after only a handful of games for the club, he was promptly released at the end of that first season and left to find game time elsewhere.
Teams That Gareth Ainsworth Played for in Between
It was Cambridge United and John Beck who believed Ainsworth had something and gave the player another chance. In fact, the manager liked him that much, he would go on to sign him a further two times throughout his career.
Following some action for Cambridge and then a return on loan back at Northwich, Beck was relieved of his duties as manager at the club. Rather than leave Ainsworth behind though, the gaffer decided to take him with him to his next job post – at Preston.
Second Spell At Preston
As soon as Beck walked through the doors at Deepdale, he was on the phone to Ainsworth and had him promptly packing his bags.
After a rather disappointing initial spell with the Lilywhites, his second would prove the one in which he flourished and would be his best in a North End shirt. Rather than lasting just the one campaign, he fought for North End for three seasons.
Although Ainsworth didn’t manage to lead his side to much success, the club did come agonisingly close to promotion on two separate occasions via the play-offs and he did manage to cement himself as a fan favourite. With his work rate and enthusiasm, he more than made up for his first stint at the club.
If only he could have helped Preston to clinch promotion, he might have become even more of a club legend. However, it wasn’t to be as they missed out in consecutive league campaigns. John Beck paid the price and Ainsworth duly followed suit.
Teams That Gareth Ainsworth Played for in Between Second and Third Spell
Leaving to join Lincoln City, with John Beck again, he had a stellar few seasons with the club. Playing regular football again under a familiar face, he thrived and was even named in the Third Division’s Team of the Year in 1996/97 for bagging the second-most goals in the league. He even won club honours and remains a club legend there too.
In fact, it’s arguable that his best football wasn’t played in Lilywhite colours but instead came when he dominated for Lincoln.
Ainsworth continued to float around the Football League, moving on to play for Port Vale for two seasons and then Wimbledon for a further five. With the latter, he managed to make the step up to the big time by playing in the Premier League but a lack of fitness and injuries limited the number of games he was able to feature in.
Third Spell at Preston
As Wimbledon were relegated back into the First Division, Ainsworth also found this his game time suffered. It’s here where his former club came to the rescue and once again offered him an out.
This time only on a short-term basis, the midfielder moved to Preston with his Wimbledon days seemingly numbered. Although limited in what he could do for the Lilywhites due to the lateness in which he joined, he still appeared in five games and even managed to bag a goal for the side before returning to his parent club.
It was to be his last spell as a Preston player but he had truly left his mark on the club and its fans, thanks to his displays for them throughoutten years.
Finishing Up His Career
That isn’t to say his career ended there – far from it. He went on to play for Cardiff City and then played in over 100 fixtures for Queens Park Rangers during a seven-year stay. Not content with that, he then joined Wycombe Wanderers on a permanent basis following a short loan spell and played over 100 games for the Chairboys.
After finally hanging up his boots, it’s at his former club where he remains now in a managing capacity rather than a playing one.
He’s been as successful as a manager as he was a player though, leading his club to promotion to the Championship against all odds and despite a modest budget.