Dave Seddon's match verdict: Luton 1 Preston North End 1 - Football returns with the same range of emotions

For three months the different emotions which 90 minutes of football delivers have been missing from our lives.

Sunday, 21st June 2020, 8:00 am

The feeling of frustration which swept over Preston North End fans just before 5pm on Saturday though, was one they would quite gladly have continued doing without.

Until the 87th minute the Lilywhites were cruising this contest as much as a 1-0 lead allows a team to cruise.

Then some slack defending and a fine finish brought Luton level and meant only one point instead of three came home on PNE’s two-coach socially distanced convoy.

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Preston midfielder Daniel Johnson is sent tumbling in a challenge with Luton defender Cameron Carter-Vickers

Alex Neil couldn’t hide his frustration in the Zoom press conference – the new safe way of doing interviews – and the look on the players’ faces as they left the pitch displayed the same emotion.

Social media lit up at the same time as the faithful who had watched on iFollow – once it got working – had their say.

The feeling they all had in common was that North End should have won.

Although the lead they held was slender, the pattern of the game pointed only to an away victory.

PNE winger Tom Barkhuizen competes in the air with Luton's Dan Potts

They had more possession, more shots, and looked pretty comfortable in their play.

Yet Luton’s single effort on target of the day earned them a point which could yet be precious in their fight to avoid relegation.

The two dropped by PNE could be costly at the other end of the Championship in the long run.

While the draw ended the run of three defeats Neil’s men had suffered before lockdown, they’ve now got Blackburn and Swansea breathing down their necks.

Tom Barkhuizen congratulates Scott Sinclair

It might be that five or six victories are needed to secure a play-off slot, so they need to find that winning feeling as quickly as possible.

The feeling of frustration was tempered somewhat by the fact that we were in some shape or form, able to watch PNE in action again.

March 7 when they had last played seemed an awful long time ago, more than 100 days in fact.

The form in which the game has come back does not resemble what we are used to but at least it is a start.

PNE manager Alex Neil shouts instructions from the touchline

It is strange though, very strange.

Never did I imagine I would cover a game where a pair of disposable gloves were handed over together with my press pass at the Kenilworth Road ticket office – that was after having a temperature check.

Where the wearing of a face mask was compulsory, where you couldn’t be sat within two metres of a fellow reporter.

The only company outside of the press box were rows of cardboard cut-outs of Luton fans.

Crowd noise was piped in over the speakers but at times sounded more like a plane setting off down the runway at nearby Luton Airport.

So much has changed. The teams came on to the pitch ahead of kick-off a minute or so apart from different parts of the main stand.

Patrick Bauer goes up for a header in the 1-1 draw with Luton

PNE couldn’t use the away dressing room because of its size, instead they arrived in their kit and afterwards were driven to Luton’s training ground to shower.

Football has to be seen to be safe and my word, the precautions being taken are on the strict side.

If this is what it takes to finish this season, it has to be done.

Hopefully this is only temporary and in time things can back to some semblance of normality.

Some of the first-half play in Bedfordshire showed both teams were still adapting to the new environment.

That was not too surprising when you bear in mind the break in the season has been double what players normally get in the summer and the time afforded to them on the training pitch to rediscover their fitness is about half the time they get in a pre-season.

Some passes were slack, an early Paul Gallagher corner barely reaching the box.

As the game went on, more of a tempo was picked-up and North End seemed to jump on it quicker than their hosts.

Hence we go back to the frustration of them not making the most of it.

On the balance of play they deserved the 53rd minute lead given to them by Scott Sinclair.

A good goal it was too, this Sinclair’s second competitive strike since January’s move from Celtic.

He’d served notice of his intentions by netting in the friendly at Burnley a week earlier and his confidence was there to see as he broke the deadlock in this one.

Sinclair had been benched in the last three games before the season was paused but on Saturday was in from the start.

The 2012 GB Olympian played on the left in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

Him and Tom Barkhuizen were there to provide a threat from wide, with the central attacking slot filled by Sean Maguire.

Daniel Johnson was in the playmaking No.10 role, with Ben Pearson and Gallagher deeper.

North End’s clearest two chances to double the lead incidentally fell to Gallagher and Pearson.

Ahead of kick-off both sides stood to applaud the work of the NHS during the pandemic, then took a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

First-half highlights were few and far between, those waiting for iFollow to creak into life for the opening 15 minutes missing little.

The game came to life after half-time as North End got their noses in front.

A clearance from Declan Rudd saw Barkhuizen and Martin Cranie compete for it, the PNE winger reading the bounce better and slipping past the Hatters man.

His pass found Sinclair overlapping down the left channel, the winger motoring into the box and picking his spot with a low finish across goalkeeper Simon Sluga from the corner of the six-yard box.

Luton’s equaliser was a quality strike but that was of little consolation to Preston.

James Bree got time to move down the right-wing and square a pass inside to fellow sub Callum McManaman.

The former Wigan man was given room to control on the edge of the box and then to hit a right-foot shot which flew into the far top corner.

On came Billy Bodin and Jayden Stockley at that point, writing a new page in the club's history books.

It was the first time North End had used five substitutes in a league game following the rule change from FIFA to help teams manage fitness levels and injuries in the return to action.

David Nugent had replaced Maguire in the 65th minute, then Darnell Fisher and Brad Potts replaced Gallagher and Sinclair.

Whether those changes worked in the grand scheme of things, you could argue against.

It was a shame to lose Gallagher's use of the ball in midfield, although it was always unlikely he would be expected to last the full course.

Fisher's arrival saw Alan Browne vacate the right-back slot he'd played so well in and fill the midfield vacancy left by Gallagher.