Preston North End 1, Nottingham Forest 1: Dave Seddon's big match verdict
Preston North End finished even stevens for the 13th time this season which improved their league position but at the same juncture saw the play-offs edge a little further out of reach.
Every point at this level is hard earned and having trailed at the interval, a draw was better than nothing.
In the grander scheme of things, it made the chase for the top six that bit harder with North End having six points to claw back in seven games.
On paper by reason of the lowly position of Nottingham Forest, this could regarded as an opportunity missed to close the gap.
Saying that, Forest for spells looked anything but a side struggling to escape the trapdoor to League One.
“It could prove to be a vital point,” reasoned Lilywhites boss Simon Grayson in the post-match analysis.
Grayson might be right but it could also be costly with there being very little wriggle room left in the play-off race.
Of the last 31 league games, his consistent side have lost only five times.
In among that run are 13 draws which could be what trips them up when it comes to the last knockings.
Put aside the poor start of six defeats in the first eight games for a moment and study the run since mid September.
If just three of those draws had been turned into wins, North End would be right up there in the play-off mix and not on the fringes.
Wigan and Barnsley away, Sheffield Wednesday here on New Year’s Eve?
Don’t get me wrong, a draw can sometimes be a very good result by nature of how they are achieved – Aston Villa, Derby and Blackburn spring immediately to mind.
It was hard to categorise this share of the spoils with Forest – one gained or two dropped?
The way that North End were given the runaround by their visitors in the first half, you would gladly have taken a point at the interval.
Having got an equaliser early in the second half, the hope was that they would have pushed on to secure a fifth successive home victory.
As it was, a stretched second 45 minutes did not produce the clear-cut chances which were needed.
The hosts did plenty of attacking but Forest were a threat on the break.
Neither deserved to lose, neither probably did enough to win it hence a draw being bang-on.
What this result did was to put an even bigger emphasis on Tuesday night’s clash with Bristol City.
Victory would be a huge shot in the arm, especially if results elsewhere go their way.
Another draw would take an already tough task on to a new level of difficulty.
This game was not quite the contest of two contrasting halves but Forest were much better for all but the first 10 minutes of the first period and North End looked the more likely in the second but without stamping their full authority.
A powerful opening in tune with the playlist which had Metallica, Deep Purple and Iron Maiden blasting out of the speakers, saw PNE create four decent chances.
That gave way to half an hour of Forest dominance in which they took the lead and came close to doubling their advantage.
Britt Assombalonga put them in front, with only a good save from Chris Maxwell with his legs denied Ben Brereton before half-time. Brereton, only 17 but with the physique and talent much beyond that age, was to inflict a rare torrid time on Greg Cunningham in the first half.
A re-shuffle at the interval led to North End getting more of a grip on Brereton and indeed Forest as a whole.
At the heart of that was a switch of system and a double substitution.
Off came Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle, on came Callum Robinson and Alex Baptiste.
Out went the 4-4-2, in came 3-4-1-2. Baptiste played on the left side of PNE’s back line which in effect went 3 v 3 with the Forest attack.
Inside went Aiden McGeady, tucked in the hole, that central position seeing him get on the end of a pass from Robinson to fire home the equaliser.
After his closer-range goal against Blackburn before the international break, he was back to being outside the box to score this one.
It was good to see Baptiste back in the action after three months out with a knee injury.
A consistent performer in the first-half of the season, his experience and calmness was what Preston needed as they sought to tame Forest’s attack.
The fact Boyle was the man sacrifced at the back to bring on Baptiste was probably down to him being on a yellow card for chopping down Chris Cohen on the half-way line.
To start with, Grayson had kept faith with 10 of those who started at Ewood Park.
The exception was Paul Gallagher, brought back in as a reward for a game-turning display from the bench in the 2-2 draw with Rovers.
Gallagher replaced Daniel Johnson who was attending the birth of his child.
Had DJ not been on the gas and air in the maternity unit, it is a fair bet Grayson would have made the midfield change anyway.
A shot from Gallagher with 45 seconds played, one which deflected off a Forest boot and travelled over the bar, marked the start of a bright opening.
Tom Barkhuizen, Jordan Hugill and Horgan went on to try their luck before Forest took over.
They scored in the 22nd minute, ASSOMBALONGA sent clear by Zach Clough’s pass before poking a finish past Maxwell.
Re-shaped Preston were back level seven minutes into the second half, not too long after Barkhuizen had sent a 25-yard drive skimming just over the top.
Cunningham’s pass down the left found Robinson, the gloved substitute taking on two defenders and squaring a pass inside to McGEADY.
The on-loan Everton man did the rest, taking a couple of touches before finding the bottom corner with a side-foot finish from inside the ‘D’.
A hard-fought draw in the end but what North End need now are wins.
RATINGS and MATCH FACTS
Chris Maxwell 7
Made a good save with his legs from Ben Brereton on the stroke of half-time which was crucial. Decent handling throughout.
Tom Clarke 8
Very strong display from the skipper, at right-back to start with and then in a three-man defence.
Paul Huntington 8
The usual committed and solid approach from the centre-half, worked well in the second-half three with Clarke and Baptiste.
Andy Boyle 6
Booked in the first half and substituted at the interval as North End changed systems. No major mistakes.
Greg Cunningham 6
Had a difficult first-half in the left-back role against Brereton. Pushed forward into a wing-back slot in the second period.
Daryl Horgan 6
Didn’t particularly get into the game and was hooked at half-time. Had a shot deflected wide early on.
Ben Pearson 7
Did the ‘ratting’ role in midfield, breaking up play and putting in tackles. Got more time on the ball when PNE went with three in midfield.
Paul Gallagher 7
Quiet first half but was more of an influence in the second period after the system change. Came off late in the game with a knock.
Aiden McGeady 7
Scored PNE’s equaliser with a composed finish, his sixth goal for the club. Until then had been fairly quiet but Forest were still wary of him.
Tom Barkhuizen 6
Started up front and had an early chance which the keeper saved. Moved to wing-back in the second half.
Jordan Hugill 6
Went close with a shot in the opening spell and in the second half saw a header saved. Ran his socks off but looked jaded at the end.
Alex Baptiste 8
Joined the action at the start of the second half and slotted in very well on the left side of a three-man defence. Good to see him back.
Callum Robinson 7
Wore gloves on a mild April afternoon but he can be forgiven for that after providing the assist for McGeady’s goal.
Alan Browne 6
Replaced the limping Gallagher six minutes from time and got in a couple of late blocks as Forest looked for a winner.
subs not used
Jermaine Beckford, Tommy Spurr, Stevie May, Anders Lindegaard.
Smith, Lichaj, Fox, Worrall, Pinillos, Vaughan, Cohen, Osborn, Brereton (Ward 62), Clough (Cash 73), Assombalonga (Vellios 73). Subs (not used): Mancienne, Tshibola, Carayol, Evtimov.
12,459 (1,539 away)