Dave Seddon’s PNE Press View: Play-off race proving to be anything but predictable

Alan Browne after missing a crucial penalty against Derby County on Monday
Alan Browne after missing a crucial penalty against Derby County on Monday

It would have been easy to apply the handbrake to the play-off ‘Believe’ bus after Preston were on the end of two defeats over Easter.

However, the chase for fifth and sixth place in the Championship is proving to be anything but predictable.

Above that, it looks to be a battle between Wolves and Cardiff for top spot, while Fulham and Aston Villa have third and fourth sewn up and are jostling for position.

But those last two play-off slots are an open field and no one is particularly laying claim to them.

Going into the weekend, Derby and Middlesbrough are in the box seat but not so convincingly.

Derby’s win at Deepdale on Monday was their first in nine games while Boro are now without a win in three and needed a late equaliser at Burton last time out.

Bristol City have been stuttering, while Millwall in eighth are the in-form side of the chasing pack, having been propelled up the table by a 15-match unbeaten run.

Sheffield United and North End – either side of Millwall in the table – have had their ups and downs.

All the managers of the chasers will be preaching the same message at present – do your own job and don’t worry about other results.

If you don’t get results, help from elsewhere becomes irrelevant.

But if the wins do come along, there might come a time when a result or two in other games could assist.

Should North End get back to form, they can take encouragement from the run-ins of others.

Boro still have Sheffield United, Bristol City, Derby and Millwall to come.

The Blades have Millwall and Bristol City to play, not to mention North End’s visit to Bramall Lane.

Millwall’s opponents to come include Bristol City, Fulham and Aston Villa, in addition to the clash with Sheffield United.

Derby still have Wolves, Cardiff and Villa to take on.

The whys and wherefores need to be accompanied by Preston returning to form.

Although results have not gone their way of late, I wouldn’t say they are totally out of form.

You could make a strong argument for them having deserved to get something from the defeats to Fulham, Sheffield Wednesday and Derby.

Perhaps that only adds to the frustration of seeing points disappear.

Alex Neil made a strong defence of his squad in the wake of the Easter defeats when facing the local media.

While accepting criticism does come after defeats, he seemed stung by the level of some of it.

Neil pointed the finger at no one in particular, just at the nature of some of the criticism.

To be written off by some with six games to go – when Preston are three points off sixth place – irked him.

He knows that the best way to respond to defeats is with a win and that is what North End will be seeking when they head to Reading.

If they can come back from Berkshire with three points, the play-off push will continue against Leeds on Tuesday night – and so on.

The frustration following the Easter defeats centred on missed opportunities.

It is not a new theme this season, Preston the lowest scorers of the promotion hopefuls.

A missed penalty was something which had not been discussed until Easter Monday though.

Alan Browne clipped the wrong side of the post with his first-half spot- kick, the scoreline blank at the time.

Neil has spoken often of fine margins and here we are talking about a matter of a few inches between Browne scoring and missing.

Just as when Jordan Hugill missed a penalty at Wigan last season, Browne’s miss drew plenty of opinion.

Some wondered why he had taken it in the first place, the answer to that surely being that he had scored his last two and that first-choice taker Daniel Johnson was sat on the bench.

It is 2-2 for those two this season on terms of scoring from the spot, so I didn’t see why there was all the fuss.

The question was asked why Sean Maguire had not taken it, the striker having had a decent record from the spot in Ireland.

This was the first time he had been on the pitch when Preston had been awarded a penalty this season.

Three of them came when he was out with his injury, while on the opening day of the season against Sheffield Wednesday he had just been substituted when the referee pointed to the spot.

What if Maguire had been on spot-kick duty on Monday and missed?

No doubt we would have been having the debate as to why Browne had not stepped up, having scored twice from the spot.

Side-stepping away from PNE and you could not help but be impressed by the action served up in the Champions League last eight games this week.

The overhead kick from Cristiano Ronaldo was just stunning, although whether it was quite as good as Ian Bryson’s effort in the 1994 play-off final, I’m not sure!

Just as impressive was the applause the Juventus fans gave Ronaldo’s goal.

In age where players get all manner of finger and hand gestures aimed at them by opposition supporters, this made a refreshing change.