PNE midfielder eyes final berth

Neil Kilkenny is hoping to make the PNE starting XI on Sunday

Neil Kilkenny is hoping to make the PNE starting XI on Sunday

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Neil Kilkenny is hoping to have done enough to secure a starting berth in Preston North End’s team for Sunday’s play-off final against Swindon Town at Wembley.

The cultured midfielder has been an influential figure for North End this season having made 48 appearances in all competitions.

However, he has found himself on the periphery of things over the last few months after losing his place in the team.

He was forced to watch from the substitutes’ bench as John Welsh, Paul Gallagher and Daniel Johnson occupied the midfield positions for the majority of an 18-game unbeaten run, which took the club to the cusp of automatic promotion.

Unfortunately, PNE were unable to extend the sequence to 19 games as they were beaten on the final game of the season 1-0 at Colchester.

That result saw North End slip to third in the table, as MK Dons overtook them to claim the second automatic promotion spot.

PNE boss Simon Grayson kept faith with the same starting XI for the play-off semi-final first leg against Chesterfield.

But despite watching his team secure a 1-0 win at the Proact Stadium, Grayson decided to change formation for the return leg at Deepdale.

Calum Woods came in at left-back and Kilkenny was recalled to the centre of midfield – his first start since the 3-1 FA Cup third round defeat to Manchester United at Deepdale in February.

Despite Jermaine Beckford’s two spectacular goals in the 3-0 romp, Kilkenny was many people’s man of the match in a eye-catching performance in the middle of the park.

There is a strong possibility that the Australia international will retain his place for the promotion decider against the Robins.

“It was good that the team went on such a good run of winning games and drawing games towards the end of the season,” Kilkenny said.

“It was frustrating from a personal point of view, but brilliant in terms of the team’s point of view.

“We have got a great squad and a great set of lads. Whoever goes into the team, everybody else gets right behind them.

“Right now, it’s all about getting the team promoted and hopefully, we can do that.

“I was pleased with the way I played against Chesterfield in the second leg.

“It was my first start for a while and I felt like I brought a bit of calmness to the game.

“I was happy with the way I played.”

Kilkenny’s passing range and ability to keep the ball may come in handy on the vast open spaces of Wembley against a Swindon team who like to maintain possession themselves.

Robins’ boss Mark Cooper encourages his men to play football and pass the ball out from the back.

It is a tactic which has served them well this season as they finished in fourth spot in the League One table after accumulating 79 points – 10 behind Preston.

Grayson’s men will be buoyed by a 3-0 victory over Swindon at Deepdale at the end of April, but Kilkenny knows he and his team-mates are set for a stern test of their abilities this weekend.

“Swindon are a very good team – we know that,” he said.

“They try to dominate possession and we know their strengths.

“They will definitely know what our strengths are. We defend well and have got players who can nick a goal.

“It should be an entertaining game, but hopefully it will be us who come out on top.”

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