Two years ago on Monday, former Walsall and Luton midfielder David Preece passed away after a short illness. He had been in remission after being diagnosed with throat cancer and his death saddened fans of his clubs, and football fans generally who saw him play.
David Preece earned the nickname “Mini” because of his tiny stature. A Shropshire native, Preece began his career at Third Division club Walsall under the management of Alan Buckley, who achieved further success in his first two spells in charge of Grimsby. Buckley’s football philosophy was simple- he favoured attractive passing football and loved small, skillful players. His teams always managed to get results despite limited resources.
“Mini” Preece was never a regular scorer, though he could weigh in with the occasional quality goal. What he was though, was a technically proficient midfielder with an accurate left foot, who could make a defence-splitting pass. And for a little guy, all 5’6 of him, he could also get stuck in. And opponents had a hard time even trying to get the ball off him.
Walsall became promotion contenders in the Third Division as Preece forged a formidable midfield partnership with Craig Shakespeare as the Saddlers took the game to the big boys. In the 1983/84 season embarked on a memorable League Cup run, defeating Arsenal 2-1 at Highbury and coming within 90 minutes of Wembley after drawing 2-2 with Liverpool at Anfield in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final. They lost the return leg at home, but Preece and Walsall were in the national spotlight.
It meant he attracted attention from clubs higher up, and joined David Pleat’s Luton Town the following season. He would be a stalwart of the Hatters for 11 years, forming an excellent midfield partnership with Ricky Hill (who won 3 England caps). And the crowning glory? Winning the League Cup in 1988 in a shock success over Arsenal.
Luton fought relegation battles later on, and in 1992 as the First Division was about to become the Premiership, the battle was lost on the last day of the season. Two years later, however, Luton reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup. Preece left Luton in 1995 on a free transfer, coincidentally Pleat left for Sheffield Wednesday having returned to Luton four years earlier. Tellingly, Luton went downhill without both of them.
Preece drifted from club to club, joining Derby and then Cambridge United, gradually winding down his career in the lower leagues.
Fans of Walsall and Luton spoke in the highest esteem about the diminutive playmaker, remembering his classy and cultured midfield play and his tenacity and commitment to the cause.