Dave Seddon’s Preston North End Press View: Alex Neil has plenty to be cheerful about
Alex Neil gave a strong and rather short answer to a question at Thursday’s press conference about Preston North End’s season to date.
The question centred on how well he thought his side had done coming up to the halfway point of the campaign which falls this weekend.
“We are third in the league,” came the reply from Neil and then silence.
It was an emphatic thumbs up from the North End manager to the job his players are doing.
Neil was to expand a little more, pointing out things were being done on a budget which in his words was in the ‘bottom four or five’ of the Championship.
That wasn’t a dig at the finances, just the way things are in the division.
Not that Neil will be resting on his laurels after a good first half of the 2019/20 campaign.
If you are to divide the season into sections, the one from now until the end of January is one which could be pivotal.
Neil has talked a few times now about it being important that PNE stay in or around the top six while the transfer window plays out.
Once it shuts, that is when the sides who mean business tend to hit top note and turn first-half optimism into an all-out push.
North End’s half-term report is promising. Being third in the Championship heading into the weekend is beyond where many of us though they might be.
They have been top, they have been second, in fact they have spent a decent chunk of the last four months or so in the top six.
More than once, Neil has referenced the ‘doom and gloom’ in the air when the summer window shut. Beaten at Millwall on the opening day and, by the looks of it, a man or two light when the deadline passed a few days later, there didn’t seem too much optimism about.
I was among those pulling their face at what might lie ahead.
I was reasonably confident of North End being able to push up from last season’s 14th place finish, but by how much?
Hand on heart, I wouldn’t have predicted that, by the start of November, the Lilywhites would enjoy a 31-hour residency at the summit of the Championship.
And to be third in the days leading up to Christmas is not bad going at all.
To be in this position not so long after a four-match losing run shows what back-to-back wins can do.
It also sums up the nature of the Championship.
Teams go on good and bad runs, it is only the top two who have shown a high level of consistency.
Look at Fulham, they were going great guns but have now lost three on the spin, including at Deepdale when PNE got themselves back to winning ways.
Bristol City inflicted the first of those three defeats at Craven Cottage but went and lost their next two home games.
Brentford have come up on the rails with five wins out of the last seven.
Nottingham Forest are winless in four, Blackburn Rovers have won five out of the last six.
Sheffield Wednesday have turned five without a win into a run of three victories and a draw.
Swansea’s home win over Middlesbrough last week halted a six-game run without a victory.
That is the top 10 of the Championship for you, a picture of peaks and troughs.
In a nutshell, it’s anyone’s to take by the scruff of the neck over the next few months and push into a strong position.
It goes without saying that North End’s away form will need a boost in order to keep them in the mix.
The home form is as good as we have known it for some seasons, PNE in general having been a better away side in recent years.
If they can keep that going at Deepdale and raise the levels a notch or two on the road, that will keep them up there. Ahead of them are some testing away matches, starting with Cardiff and Leeds this week.
West Bromwich Albion, Blackburn, Fulham, Sheffield Wednesday, Brentford and Bristol City are all sides from the current top 10 who Preston have to face away.
There is no reason why they can’t start to produce the goods on their travels more often.
Birmingham and Charlton weren’t the easiest of venues to go and win at but Neil’s men brought home three points from both.
Their other away points came at Forest and Middlesbrough – PNE should have beaten Forest and they took the lead at Boro only to let in a quick equaliser.
Hull is the only away game they got soundly thrashed in, while North End weren’t great at Reading, Derby and QPR but were in those games for decent spells.
This is the last Press View column before the big day, so may I wish you all a very happy Christmas.
Enjoy the presents and the turkey, and please don’t go overboard on the sprouts!
If you’ve got any brass left, Leeds want £39 from you to watch PNE on Boxing Day.
Is that acceptable for any game in the second tier? If Leeds get promoted, away prices in the Premier League are capped at £30.