Exclusive Sean Gregan column

Jermaine Beckford (centre) celebrates scoring PNE's Good Friday winner ' for me, he is still a Championship-class striker

Jermaine Beckford (centre) celebrates scoring PNE's Good Friday winner ' for me, he is still a Championship-class striker

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For Preston North End fans this is both an exciting and nervous time as the race to get automatic promotion hots up.

The important thing is that with seven games remaining, a top-two place is in North End’s own hands.

If they do their job over the next few weeks, no one can stop them going up.

There will be twists and turns – I’m sure of that – and it is all about the players keeping their focus and continuing to accumulate points.

In January when they were on that dodgy run of form, had you offered any PNE player, member of staff or fan this current position at Easter, they would have snapped your hand off.

For whatever reason, the going got tough for a few weeks but North End have responded really well and put together this unbeaten run.

Good Friday’s win against Rochdale was not a classic but it got the three points which is all that counts at this stage of the season.

Jermaine Beckford’s finish for the winner was excellent, something out of nothing.

That is Beckford for you, he gets in the right place at the right time.

At League One level he has a prolific record and I think Simon Grayson made a very shrewd signing.

He had that spell out with illness but has still managed eight goals, which is decent.

Beckford has taken some of the pressure off Joe Garner up front.

Earlier in the season in a game like the Rochdale one, all the focus would have been on Garner to find a way through.

Now, Beckford is there to share the workload and I would not be surprised to see a few more goals from him in these next few weeks.

For me, Beckford is still a Championship-standard player, so to have him here in League One is a boost.

Beating Rochdale meant Preston were able to briefly set up a seven-point lead over third place.

That changed the next day when MK Dons won 3-0 at Swindon, narrowing the gap to five points.

I suppose a draw would have been the better result but as I wrote earlier, things are in North End’s hands.

Maybe it helped that PNE played first and won, putting the pressure on Swindon and MK Dons.

It is only natural that fans are looking at other teams’ results and doing the maths, trying to work out how many points are needed.

I remember it being the same when we were going for promotion in 2000.

We would get a result and the first question when we got back to the dressing room was how the others had done.

It was about this stage of the season in 2000 that we had a really defining result against Wigan at their place.

We won 1-0 in a midweek game in front of a massive away following.

That strengthened our hand in the promotion race and pushed Wigan out of the automatic promotion frame.

Next up for North End is the trip to Bradford, which will be a tricky one.

They smashed Doncaster on Friday night and are only just outside the play-offs.

It is a tight pitch at Valley Parade. A lot has been made of the condition of the playing surface, but it is up to Preston to overcome those obstacles.

Being the home side, there will be spells when Bradford get on top and that is when North End have to dig in.

Finally, thanks to everyone who came to Simon Grayson’s fans’ forum. It was a good night, I really enjoyed having a chat with the supporters and reminiscing.