Dave Seddon’s Preston North End pressview: Back on the play-off track

Calmer waters seemed to have returned for the good ship Preston North End to sail on after choppy seas at the turn of the year.

Saturday, 25th January 2020, 5:00 am
Preston North End's Tom Barkhuizen, left, celebrates scoring the opening goal against Barnsley with team-mate Josh Harrop

Three home defeats on the spin have given way to a derby-day draw at Blackburn and back-to-back victories over Charlton and Barnsley.

Throw in the signing of Scott Sinclair and it’s been a decent two-and-a-half weeks for the Lilywhites.

Tuesday night’s 3-0 win at Oakwell in particular saw everyone on the same page.

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Victory was secured by half-time in effect, three goals in a 25-minute spell putting North End beyond reach of the Yorkshire hosts.

More than 600 PNE fans who crossed the Pennines, had an absolute ball in the away end.

On the road there hasn’t been a huge amount to get the pulse racing this season, so this was very much a change for the better.

It was interesting to see quite a significant change in approach bring about the three points and the biggest away winning margin for 12 months.

Alex Neil has very much been a 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 man since landing at Deepdale.

To take on Barnsley he switched to 4-4-2 but not necessarily the standard version.

Neil shaped the midfield four in a diamond and put two wingers up front as strikers.

Tactically he got it spot on, with the change catching-out the Tykes who has been unbeaten at home since Gerhard Struber had come in as head coach in November.

With a three-goal lead under their belts by the interval, the second half was all about seeing the game out without too much drama and getting everyone through 90 minutes without mishap.

The substitutions of Scott Sinclair and Daniel Johnson were sensible, no need to push them too hard too soon.

This after all was Sinclair’s second start in four days after only one in the previous three months.

Johnson had only returned last Saturday against Charlton after seven weeks out with a knee injury.

The victory against Charlton hadn’t been quite as convincing as Barnsley was and to start with it did pose some awkward moments.

Andre Green scoring inside five minutes was just the scenario North End didn’t want.

Less than three weeks before he had still been on Preston’s books, his loan from Aston Villa then cut short with the winger being re-homed at Charlton.

There was an inevitability almost that Green would score, Twitter awash with gnashing of teeth and moans about the fact PNE should have held on to him.

The Addicks supporters sat in the Bill Shankly Kop were probably fearing Patrick Bauer would score against them at some stage.

He did just that, the big German’s header early in the second half ending-up being the winner.

I thought it was pretty comfortable for North End overall, even if there was just the single goal margin.

What was pleasing was that they played their way back into the game and didn’t resort to lumping it forward.

At times there was some hesitancy, it wasn’t exactly free-flowing, but it never looked like the game was getting away from them.

Josh Harrop’s equaliser was superb, the header from Bauer no-nonsense.

With a little more polish and care on the counter, PNE could have scored again.

What successive wins has done is to lift North End back into the top six, a target Neil set his players ahead of the Barnsley.

Results elsewhere over the next few days could see them drop out but to have been in the play-off spots again will have given the players that bit more belief.

There is no doubt that results in the second-half of November and early December, so too either side of the New Year, sapped their confidence.

With PNE not playing until next Saturday when Swansea head to Lancashire, the focus of the faithful will be on the last days of the January transfer window.

The shutters come down at 11pm on January 31, with no more buying or selling permitted until the summer months.

In general it has been a quiet window everywhere which might point to a trolly dash countrywide as Friday’s deadline approaches.

North End have to date done the Sinclair deal which certainly caught the fans’ imagination.

The general feeling among them is that another signing of the right quality could be the deal-breaker between a real go at making the play-offs and missing out.

Would just the addition of Sinclair mean the squad is stronger when the window closes? Neil spoke last month of the need to be stronger come January 31.

It is certainly stronger in that inside-left position for his arrival from Celtic.

But just think what a bit more firepower down the middle could do for a determined assault on the top six.

A new striker is at the top of many clubs’ shopping lists, North End supporters not alone in wishing for some news on that front.