So near yet so far would be a phrase applicable to Preston and Burton Albion – for much differing reasons – as the bank holiday sun set on the season.
PNE missed the play-off boat by just two points while the Brewers dropped out of the Championship by the same margin.
For much of this Sunday lunchtime contest, North End were playing for pride and a strong finish to the campaign by reason of Derby winning comfortably against Barnsley.
The favour needed at Pride Park didn’t come, the Rams keeping a grip on sixth place.
For Burton it was so cruel, their supporters put through an emotional wringer.
They looked safe for long spells of the afternoon due to the fact they pulled level in this game and Bolton had gone behind to Nottingham Forest.
But Bolton fighting back to beat Forest 3-2 sank them, the late winner PNE scored just rubbing salt into the wound.
Burton will re-group in League One and Preston will plot another Championship promotion tilt in the summer.
There is naturally a feeling of frustration to have missed out on the top six having taken the push to the 46th game.
It is tempting to go back over the season and torture oneself with the ‘what might have been moments’.
PNE boss Alex Neil was not going down that route when a question on that subject came his way post-match.
He countered that there had been times when missed chances and dropped crosses had been cancelled out by his side taking points when not deserved.
But at the same time there was an acknowledgement, and a strong one, from Neil that the big improvement next season had to come in front of goal.
Their tally of 57 goals was 10 less than Middlesbrough who were the lowest scorers in the top six.
Probably just five or six more goals would have had them in the play-offs.
While we pick over what might have been, let us not take our eye off what was still an extremely good season from the Lilywhites.
To have gone into the last game still in with a chance of the top six is testament to Neil and the PNE players.
It might have been easy last July to regard this season as one of transition.
There had been the change of manager, the loss of last season’s player of the year.
Instead, Neil came in and took the bull by the horns.
September’s climb into the top six was a brief taste of what Preston fans wanted.
Once they slipped out of it after a few weeks, there was always the desire to get back in.
There were times when the chance seemed to have gone, only for PNE to keep the dream alive.
Finally it was taken away from them, not that Neil’s men stopped giving it a go.
They kept their side of the bargain on Sunday, there was no carve-up or any settling for a draw.
The fact their winner came in the 93rd minute was proof of how determined they were to battle to the very end.
Contrast this season’s finale to how last term ended with a whimper.
North End won four of their last five games, taking 13 points from 15 on offer.
A year ago they took one point from the last six games, the final game at Wolves as dreadful a spectacle of football seen for many a seasons.
Sunday’s offering in the early afternoon heat was a more than decent watch.
It had plenty of incident, with spurned chances, a red card for Billy Bodin and ultimately the late winner from the boot of Louis Moult.
I took no pleasure in seeing Burton drop out of the division.
They are a side punching above their weight at this level and I would have liked to have seen them stay up had the mathematics allowed.
As money talks more and more in football, it is nice when a team defies the odds and creates a business model where they can survive among the more likely candidates.
North End have done that to some extent, their budget much less than the six clubs who finished ahead of them.
Just think of what could be achieved with a few more quid thrown into the mix.
Deepdale’s fourth highest crowd of the season witnessed a cagey opening, one which Neil had predicted.
With Preston never the quickest out of the blocks and Burton not wanting to show themselves too early, it was all a bit nip-and-tuck early on.
The game sprang into life part-way through the first half as Robinson gave the hosts the lead soon after squandering a one-on-one chance.
Josh Harrop’s corner from the left was met in the air by Paul Huntington who nodded it into the six-yard box.
It came to ROBINSON who headed across the keeper into the far corner from five yards.
Robinson should have had an assist to his name when his cross found Sean Maguire in the box in the 33rd minute.
But with the whole goal to aim at, the striker lifted his shot against the bar.
Bodin put the ball into the net in the 35th minute but was adjudged to have used his arm to do so – earning a yellow card from referee Andy Madley.
The second half was five minutes old when Mr Madley was fishing for his cards again, a second yellow followed by red after Bodin went to ground too easily in the box. Preston reorganised to 4-3-2 but then had lots of pressure to weather from Burton, that paying off for the visitors in the 63rd minute.
Tom Clarke’s clearance as he tried to mop-up following a corner, fell to Hope AKPAN in the ‘D’.
He knocked the ball round Ben Pearson and hit a superb bending shot into the net.
For a while the Burton fans celebrated, safety seemingly assured.
But when news filtered through that Bolton had drawn level and then gone in front, the visitors had to go all out for victory.
They left gaps at the back, North End finally exploiting it to the maximum as the clock ticked into the third minute of stoppage-time.
Pearson sprang forward down the left on the end of a pass from Robinson, took it into the box and crossed low for MOULT to score.