Greg Cunningham believes Preston North End’s season should be considered a success even if their play-off bid comes up short.
The 3-0 defeat to Leeds last time out leaves the Lilywhites eight points shy of the play-offs with five games to play, Simon Grayson’s side needing an unlikely set of results to break into the top six.
Ninth in the table on 61 points, PNE are one short of their total for the whole of last season with this campaign representing another one of progress ahead of the trip to Huddersfield on Good Friday.
“It was always our objective to build on last season,” said the Irishman.
“A lot of teams come up and then have a little bit of a blip in their second season.
“We’ve continued to improve.
“We have accumulated pretty much equal the amount of points that we did last season with five games to go.
“There are a lot of improvements on last year and that’s all we can keep on doing.
“We’ll see where we are at the end of the season and then push on again next year.”
North End’s position in the Championship table is all the more impressive given the slow start they had, losing six of their first eight games, a run that culminated with the 5-0 defeat at Brentford.
After a poor opening few weeks, Cunningham says there is a determination now to finish on a high and not lose any of the momentum that has been built up.
“It was frustrating but I think over the course of the season it all evens out,” said the left-back.
“We were unlucky in a lot of those games and we’ve picked ourselves up very well.
“Now we’re not going to take our foot off the gas until we’re done.
“We’ve got a nice break over the summer so I don’t see why we should be letting up now.
“We’ve got five games to go now and we’ll give it everything we can to try and get 15 points.
“We’ll get as many as we can and just see where we are.”
That could in theory be the play-offs, even if Preston are the rank outsiders.
With the top six having been on the agenda for a large part of the season, North End are now looking to extend their flirtation with the promotion places for as long as possible.
“You never know,” said Cunningham.
“We’ll keep going until it’s mathematically impossible to get there.
“It is obviously a big ask after our result at the weekend.
“We were disappointed but we’ve come a long way this season after such a slow start.
“We lost six of the first eight so to be in contention for that play-off spot with five games to go is a credit to everyone at the club.
“We’re disappointed but it’s a big weekend for us.
“If we get two good results who knows where it could take us?
“It will keep us in with a fighting chance ahead of the final games of the season.”
The defeat at Elland Road proves that finishing on a high will be easier said than done.
The trip to Huddersfield is the start of a tough 10 days that includes the Easter Monday clash with Norwich at Deepdale and the trip to Premier League-bound Newcastle United seven days later.
North End will be looking for more of what they showed in the 3-1 win over David Wagner’s promotion-chasers back in October.
The Terriers welcome Preston to the John Smith’s Stadium sitting third in the Championship, looking to make absolutely sure of their play-off place and enter the post-season lottery in good form.
“Leeds away, Huddersfield away, Norwich and then Newcastle…it’s a tough run,” said Cunningham. “Having said that, our record against the top six teams has been credible.
“We got a deserved result against them at Deepdale but they’ve been flying and credit to them.
“We’ll go there looking to make amends for last week and do ourselves justice and show what we’re capable of doing.”
If PNE are to enjoy success across the Pennines then one thing that will need to change is their recent away form.
The Lilywhites have not won on the road since Tom Clarke’s goal handed them a 1-0 victory at Burton in their first game of 2017. It has been the complete opposite at what has become fortress Deepdale, North End having lost just one of their last 13 on home soil.
“We pride ourselves on being hard to break down and our away record last year was impressive,” said Cunningham.
“Our home record has been very good this time and we’re obviously disappointed not to have got more points away from home.
“Given how well we did last year, teams aren’t taking us for granted and every time we play a team away from home they know they’re going to have a tough day.
“We’ve just been coming out on the wrong end of some disappointing results.
“That’s the way the Championship goes sometimes.
“Between now and the end of the season we just want to make sure we’re solid at the back and then the flair players can go and express themselves and win us the game.
“We’ve got some great attacking players in the team but that doesn’t mean they don’t do their defensive duties.”
On a personal level, it’s been another strong season for last year’s player of the year, who continues to be a model of consistency down the left.
“Credit to everyone at the club, I’ve got my career back on track here,” said Cunningham, who arrived from Bristol City in the summer of 2015 and is closing in on 90 appearances for the club.
“I’m just delighted to be playing games every week and showing what I can do.
“I want to repay this club for showing faith in me.
“Ever since I’ve come to the club there’s always been a great chemistry.
“From players to staff to everyone around the club.
“There is a great working environment here and you can see that togetherness in our performances and our results.”