Preston North End’s preparations for Thursday’s semi-final first leg against Chesterfield began in the boarding lounge of Southend Airport on Sunday.
Having seen their automatic promotion hopes go up in smoke on the final day of the season after a 1-0 defeat against Colchester United, the mood among the players was a sombre one to say the least as they waited to fly back north.
George Moncur’s late winner at the Weston Homes Community Stadium saw PNE drop out of the top two of League One at the vital moment, replaced by MK Dons.
Instead of a week of celebration followed by a well-earned summer holiday, North End now face the prospect of having to win the play-offs if they are to achieve Championship football next season.
Veteran striker Kevin Davies admits that thoughts of ‘what if’ and ‘what might have been’ have been difficult to eradicate from his mind since Sunday.
But he believes he and his team-mates have the necessary strength of character to recover by the time they take to the field at the Proact Stadium this evening.
“It is hard not to look back and think what might have been,” said Davies, who came on as a late second-half substitute against the U’s.
“But I suppose it’s like that after most games during the season, especially if you’ve missed a good chance or let a late goal in or dropped a couple of points.
“It does stay with you for a bit and then you gradually get over that and your focus has to move to the next game.
“Obviously there was a feeling of disappointment after the game on Sunday.
“On the coach back to the airport, it was very quiet as you can imagine.
“But when we got there the manager then had a few words to say.
“He said, ‘Look it’s gone now hasn’t it? There’s nothing we can do about it now’.
“I think you just have to find a way of dealing with it and move on.
“We have been back in training this week and all the lads seem fine.
“Certainly if somebody seems a bit more down than others, you get around them and try to lift their spirits.
“But there’s a good squad here, a good staff – everybody has been rallying around and now the focus is on Chesterfield.”
In a 20-plus year career, Davies has experienced many highs and lows in the game.
He ranks Sunday’s loss in Essex right up there with his biggest disappointments.
But if North End can prevail in the play-offs – for the first time in the club’s modern history – it will go down as one of his most memorable moments.
“Sunday is right up there with the lowest points of my career,” he added. “I can only think of relegation with Bolton on the last day of the season at Stoke to rival it.
“That was hard to take as captain of the club and having been in the Premier League for so long.
“We also got beaten by Stoke 5-0 at Wembley in the semi-final of the FA Cup – that was a low point.
“But we’ve got to move on from Sunday now.
“We have to focus on the positives and we’ve got a chance of getting to Wembley.
“Opportunities like that don’t come around too often, do they?
“That is a massive motivation for us to beat Chesterfield
“It’s a two-legged semi-final – so let’s beat Chesterfield and get to Wembley then we will have two weeks to focus on that.”
The fact that North End’s clash against Chesterfield somes so soon after the disappointment of missing out on automatic promotion is a good thing as far as Davies is concerned.
And he also believes the team will draw confidence from finishing a massive 20 points ahead of the Spireites in the final table.
“With the games against Chesterfield coming around so soon is a good thing,” he said.
“There’s no dwelling on the past and we can just concentrate on what’s in front of us.
“We have to keep doing what we have been doing all season.
We have had a good season and just fallen at the final hurdle.
“But to get nearly 90 points – you don’t get that amount of points if you’re not a good side.
“In football, there are always going to be ups and down, it’s how you recover from the downs and how quickly you can do it.
“That is something we have always done really well here. We have never really had a bad run as such.
“We have always responded well from a defeats and that’s down to the strength of character in the squad.”
Davies will face one of his old clubs tonight, having begun his career at the Spireites.
He made 159 appearances for the club, scoring 30 goals, before being transferred to Southampton in 1997.
“It’s a club close to my heart but sentiment goes out of the window,” Davies said. “They are in the way of this club getting to Wembley.
“They have done well to get in the play-offs after winning promotion last season.
“And they will be full of confidence and thinking we will be feeling sorry for ourselves
“We have just got to think if we reach our standards, we will go through. We are the better side – the table suggests that, but we’ve got to prove it over the two games.”