Dave Seddon's PNE pressview: Luton clash feels like a must-win game for Alex Neil's Preston

Preston’s season is delicately poised to the extent their game with Luton is being given ‘must win’ status.

Friday, 19th March 2021, 4:45 pm

That might sound a touch dramatic with nine matches remaining and the Lilywhites occupying 16th place – unspectacular but not fraught with danger as things stand.

There’s a bigger picture though, for a few reasons North End need three points in the bag. For starters they have taken one point from the last 12 on offer.

Secondly, their form in 2021 has bordered on the miserable, 12 points from 15 matches. That ratio spread over a season is relegation fodder.

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Boss Alex Neil has come under fire from fans over Preston's form of late

After the international break, and this is the third point, are matches against three of the top four as the table currently stands.

To be preparing for that trio on the back of being winless in five would be a rather daunting prospect.

The fourth reason for the Luton game being a must win relates to Alex Neil.

Whether or not he needs a victory this weekend to hold on to his job, only Trevor Hemmings and Peter Ridsdale can answer that.

Even if the North End boss is safe regardless of the result, Neil needs a win to take some of the heat off him.

That still wouldn’t cut it for some supporters for who the relationship with him is fractured beyond repair.

With others though, the gain of three points might just permit some breathing space and a chance for some reflection over the international break.

The last few days have been wretched for Neil and he won’t want to end the week on that note.

Last Saturday’s defeat at Wycombe, the first half especially, was one of the low points of Neil’s time at PNE.

Things were better to start with at Middlesbrough on Tuesday night before Jordan Storey sliced into his own net, Alan Browne was sent off and Neil himself got a red card.

Neil’s manner in the post-match press conferences after the two games contrasted markedly.

At Wycombe over Zoom, he was frustrated and blazing in equal measure, a bleep machine needed and understandably so.

Meeting the media in person – socially distanced I must point out – at Boro, Neil looked like he’d had the wind knocked out of him.

He’d seen a promising start go to waste, lost his skipper by half-time and had been told by the referee to watch the second half from the stand – a punishment for walking on to the pitch to

get his point across to the referee over Browne being dismissed.

Just on that issue, to banish a manager or coach from the touchline in the era we’re in is as pointless as a broken pencil.

Neil stood a few rows back in the stand and the empty ground meant he could still be heard by the players.

After the Wycombe game, Neil admitted this was the toughest spell of his time as Preston manager.

They have been lower in the table before, that in the early weeks of the 2018/19 season when it took PNE until late autumn to start finding their form.

This is different, the form sliding in the second-half of the campaign rather than not having got going at the beginning.

Back in 2018, Callum Robinson, Ben Pearson and Ben Davies were around to help get North End pushing up the table.

Robinson is long gone, Pearson and Davies exiting more recently.

Neil argues with much merit that the squad is weaker without Pearson and Davies, weaker without Darnell Fisher who wore Middlesbrough red against them on Tuesday.

Weaker without Patrick Bauer who is working his way back to fitness ready for next season after surgery to put back together his Achilles.

However, when he lists the players who have gone, it is not exactly a ringing endorsement of those who have come through the arrivals door to replace them.

When it comes to Neil’s future, those who want a change will refer to the maddening inconsistency of the season.

They will point to 19 defeats from 37 matches, a tally matched by Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday, with only Wycombe having a worse tally – 23.

Only five wins at Deepdale is poor, even if North End have tended to be a better away team in their seasons back in the Championship.

The stats also show that across the leagues there have been more away wins during this season of empty grounds than previously.

For some balance, only four teams have won more away games then PNE, with two others matching their eight victories on the road.

When it comes to wins home and away, North End are joint 11th.

The buffer zone between them and the bottom three is 12 points heading into the weekend.

It is asking a lot of the clubs in the relegation zone to suddenly find form that is akin to promotion chasers.

But what Preston must avoid is being dragged into that group just above the danger line.

If they were to beat Luton, moving on to 47 points would see them breath easier.

To stay on 44 points might well see others squeeze up towards them.

The games either side of the international break are of the utmost importance and could well be key in deciding Neil’s future.

Moving topics, well done to former North End loan goalkeeper Sam Johnstone on being named in the England squad for the three World Cup qualifiers this month.

Johnstone came on loan from Manchester United in January 2015 and helped the Lilywhites to promotion a few months later.

He returned for a shorter spell on loan the following season. Raised in Leyland, it was a case of Johnstone coming home when pulling on the gloves for PNE.

His dad Glenn, also played for Preston during John Beck’s time in charge.

Best of luck to Sam whose form for West Bromwich has earned him the call.

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