Desperate Dan’s PNE Wembley dream

Daniel Johnson played for PNE's play-off opponents Chesterfield earlier this term
Daniel Johnson played for PNE's play-off opponents Chesterfield earlier this term
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Daniel Johnson says it is vital that Preston display the ruthless side to their game in the play-offs as they look to bounce back from blowing automatic promotion.

The Lilywhites make the trip to Chesterfield on Thursday in the first leg of the semi-final, with the return tie at Deepdale on Sunday afternoon.

Had PNE won at Colchester last weekend, they would be on their holidays now with a place in the Championship to look forward to next season.

As it is, it is the lottery of the play-offs for a 10th time since 1989, this a second chance at trying to get back to English football’s second tier.

“I can’t really explain what happened at Colchester but it probably summed up how ruthless the game is,” said midfielder Johnson.

“We need to be far more ruthless in both boxes.

“It happened too many times during the season that we conceded late goals, like we did at Colchester.

“On Thursday and Sunday in the play-offs we need to be ruthless to give ourselves the chance of getting to Wembley.

“I’ll admit that the dressing room was devastated after the Colchester defeat.

“Obviously it was not what we had planned for. We had been on a high after going 18 games unbeaten but the most crucial match which we needed to win, we unfortunately lost.

“Everyone knew what was at stake and not a lot needed to be said in the dressing room after.

“The gaffer has his say, told us that we now had to start looking ahead rather than back at what had happened.

“Our focus is now on preparing for Thursday and Sunday.

“We know what we have to do now – we have two must-win games against Chesterfield.

“We need to put on performances to show that we are a side capable of getting promotion.

“If we can win against Chesterfield then we go to Wembley.

“We have a second shot at trying to get promotion and we all have to believe we can do it.

“As far as MK Dons getting the second automatic place ahead of us, you’ve got to say fair play to them.

“They had their target and stuck to it – that ended up paying off.”

For Johnson, the semi-final double header comes against a Chesterfield team he played for earlier in the season.

He was on loan with the Spireites from Aston Villa for three months, making 13 appearances – one of them being the 3-3 draw against Preston in September.

A shorter loan spell at Oldham followed, before the 22-year-old joined North End for £50,000 in January.

Johnson looks back fondly on his time in Derbyshire and has kept in touch with some of his old team-mates.

But the battle lines have been drawn ahead of the first-leg clash at the Proact Stadium.

“I really enjoyed my time there, everyone at Chesterfield was good to me – the players and staff,” said Johnson.

“It will be good to play against them, although this is not the first time as I played in our 2-0 win at their place not too long after I signed here.

“I’m still in touch with some of their players but friendship will go out of the window once the game starts.

“We are all professionals, we know how to deal with situations when you face former team-mates.”

North End supporters need no reminding of the club’s play-off record, their previous nine attempts ending in failure. It is a statistic which cannot be avoided and will be brought up until success is delivered in the end-of-season knockout.

Quite why PNE have fared so poorly in the play-offs, is anyone’s guess.

Their lack of success has been spread over 26 years, with seven managers having had a go at charting a path through the waters.

Johnson and some of his team-mates were not even born when Preston first made the play-offs in 1989 against Port Vale.

“Our play-off record has been mentioned to me previously,” said Johnson.

“As a squad, we cannot go into the games thinking about that too much.

“We will be going there to try and win, just as we approach every game we play.

“As a squad and staff we are concentrating on what is ahead of us, not what has happened in the past. That is something we cannot affect.

“What we know is that we are in a four-team competition with Chesterfield, Sheffield United and Swindon. It doesn’t matter now whereabouts in the table we all finished, it is all about the games which are coming up.”

For ex-Villa man Johnson, a potential visit to Wembley in the play-off final would come a week before Villa take on Arsenal in the FA Cup final – not that he is looking that far.

Said Johnson: “I hope Villa stay up and they have a chance of winning the FA Cup.

“I’m just focused on the two games against Chesterfield.”