Adam Lord's big-match verdict after Preston's 0-0 draw at Middlesbrough

Own up then.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 27th August 2017, 3:14 pm
Updated Monday, 11th September 2017, 1:01 pm
Tom Barkhuizen brings a save from Darren Randolph with a header.
Tom Barkhuizen brings a save from Darren Randolph with a header.

Who when they looked at the fixture list feared the worst for the opening month of the season?

Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds, Derby, Reading and Middlesbrough presented pretty much the toughest start possible for Alex Neil as Preston North End manager.

Some fans talked of two or three points being almost acceptable ahead of the first international break of the campaign.

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Tom Barkhuizen brings a save from Darren Randolph with a header.

Neil has had other ideas though and the defeat at Pride Park aside the Lilywhites have not only more than matched sides fancied to be at the sharp end of the Championship come May but have largely bettered them.

North End are playing on the front foot and seizing the initiative, taking the game to those perceived to be the division’s big-hitters.

Having preached this attacking approach from the off, there were some fears about what might happen at the other end of the field.

Stephy Mavididi takes on Patrick Bamford.

Conceding set piece goals in pre-season did little to allay that but five games in Chris Maxwell and the PNE defence have four clean sheets to their name, having not conceded from open play yet.

A couple of wobbles aside, Boro’s heavyweight strike force of Britt Assombalonga and Rudy Gestede didn’t really worry Paul Huntington, Ben Davies and co.

In fact, it took until the 81st minute for the hosts, relegated from the Premier League last year, to have a shot on target, Maxwell getting down well low to his left to keep out Stewart Downing’s shot.

So rather than a couple, it is eight points from the opening month will all of the 961 who left the Riverside on Saturday heading home excited about what was to come.

Ben Pearson looks for an opening.

The only thing that could have made the trip to Teeside even sweeter?

A goal of course.

It wouldn’t just have capped another fine day at the office but it would have been exactly what Preston deserved.

The final stats show North End had 12 shots to Boro’s five, three of the Lilywhites’ efforts being on target.

Tom Barkhuizen brings a save from Darren Randolph with a header.

The movement of the front four was a joy to behold all afternoon.

Tom Barkhuizen, putting in arguably his best performance of the season, Sean Maguire, a real livewire off the front and Alan Browne, recalled in place of Josh Harrop, all provided excellent support to Jordan Hugill.

The big No.9, the subject of a reported £8 million bid from Reading prior to kick-off, continues to be linked with moves away.

But importantly for Preston, it isn’t affecting his performances, the striker seeing one header from a Josh Earl cross go narrowly wide midway through the first half, the teenager again looking right at home at left back.

Hugill has been more influential in other games this campaign but leading the line in the way he does, Hugill allows those around him to do damage.

Maguire was the pick of the bunch at the Riverside, his direct running from deep and in wide areas a real threat all afternoon.

Stephy Mavididi takes on Patrick Bamford.

The Irishman was unlucky not to pick up his first Preston goal as well, a low shot after one such run being helped around the post by Darren Randolph.

It was Barkhuizen who actually came the closest to scoring.

He saw a header saved by the Boro ‘keeper from the resultant corner having earlier hit a post on the quarter hour mark.

After a classic Hugill lay-off his pace took him beyond the home backline and with the angle tightening his shot was helped by Randolph onto the woodwork.

The wide man had earlier bent a shot just wide from the edge of the area in North End’s first real opening of the afternoon.

Barkhuizen also set up a chance for Huntington just before the end of the first half, winning and taking a set piece which the defender headed powerfully towards goal only to find Randolph on hand to keep it out.

Browne may not have had the chances but he is certainly enjoying life under Neil.

Deployed further forward than we have been used to in the past he was again the most advanced of the three central midfield players.

It is a position that allows Browne to use his excellent engine both offensively and when it comes to pressing the ball when out of possession.

The Irishman set up the first meaningful chance of the second half for Daniel Johnson with the Jamaican shooting over the from the edge of the box.

Like so many others he had a good day too though. Seemingly more suited to playing where Browne has been, Johnson drove the team forwards and used the ball well, rarely wasting a pass.

Next to him in the middle of the park, Ben Pearson hobbiling off with 20 minutes to play was a concern.

Neil revealed post-match a calculated risk had been taken playing the main man in the middle of the park as he had a tight thigh.

A dead leg picked up in a challenge with Adam Clayton that saw the Boro man booked then saw his afternoon end early.

It coincided with the hosts finally putting PNE under pressure. Earlier in proceedings only a couple of times had alarms been raised at the back.

A driving Assombalonga run invited by some questionable North End challenges forced Maxwell to race from his line and deny the £15 million striker inside the first 10 minutes.

The North End ‘keeper then overran a long ball to give Fabio a sight of goal but from a narrow angle the former Manchester United man hit the side netting.

Gestede also flicked a header the wrong side of the post just after the half hour but the home side were well below par, by virtue of both their own failings and North End’s control.

Preston did have to defend their box late on but when Maxwell saved from sub Downing it was job done.

Now if things get going at the other end then exciting times really do lie ahead.

Ben Pearson looks for an opening.