Dave Seddon’s Preston North End Press View: Who can fill in for Ben Pearson?
Ben Pearson being in the Craven Cottage Press room in search of a half-time brew during Preston’s clash with Fulham wasn’t what we wanted to see.
A chat with Pearson is always a welcome one – he’s a decent bloke under the hair, beard and anger displayed on the pitch – but for him not to be on the pitch is a blow for the Lilywhites as they enter a crucial stage of the season.
The midfielder is set to be sidelined for a month with a hamstring problem.
Listening to Alex Neil at Thursday’s press conference, it’s the site of the injury which is the problem, in that the damage to the muscle is close to the tendon.
Anywhere else in the hamstring and he might be due back sooner but chances cannot be taken.
Pearson is a difficult player to replace for any length of time.
He is up there with the best holding midfielders in the Championship so it is difficult to carry someone of similar quality within the squad as cover.
Ryan Ledson is the nearest type to Pearson but he’s not a mirror image.
Of course Ledson can tackle, play as a holder and likes a yellow card in a similar way to Pearson.
However, he’s not on the same page yet and has found game time difficult this season.
Pearson cleaning up his act and collecting fewer cards means he has been available more often this season than last, when Ledson was his understudy.
As a consequence, Ledson has started only three league games and come off the bench three times.
On top of that there have been four starts in the League Cup and FA Cup.
Ledson stood in for Pearson in midfield in two of those league starts – against Brentford in September when Pearson was ill and in Huddersfield’s visit to Deepdale in November due a suspension for Pearson.
North End won them both, his third league start being as an emergency right-back in the 4-0 collapse at Hull City.
Since Hull, Ledson had 20 minutes at Leeds on Boxing Day, a full game against Norwich in the FA Cup and eight minutes at the end of the 2-1 win over Charlton.
He has dropped off the radar somewhat since, his inclusion on the bench at Fulham the first time since early February.
Neil opted for Alan Browne as replacement for Pearson last week.
Not a straight swap as PNE boss Neil was keen to point out, more a case of Browne being given the job of almost man-marking the Cottagers’ Tom Cairney.
Browne filled the holding role when Pearson missed January’s win over Charlton due to illness, so it is a position he’s comfortable in.
He could well play in the deeper role again when Queens Park Rangers visit Deepdale this weekend.
Doing so would free up the attacking No.8 and No.10 roles for Daniel Johnson, Brad Potts, Josh Harrop and Paul Gallagher to compete.
It might mean Ledson having to make do with a seat on the bench again, keeping up the game of patience.
Don’t be surprised to see him get a chance at some stage, though.
If Neil thinks a game is suited to a certain player, he will play them.
Potts came in from almost nowhere to start at Fulham.
He’d had a couple of runs as a substitute of late but he came in to start a league game for the first time since December 29 against Reading at Deepdale.
If Potts can get in, Ledson is probably using that as motivation. Whoever plays in midfield, hopefully North End can party without Pearson.
If the predicted month’s absence is an accurate one, that would see him back at Huddersfield on April 4.
So there’s QPR, Luton, Cardiff and Derby to play without Pearson.
These are key games, three of them at home – the base from which Preston have launched their push for the top six.
It is important that PNE learn to cope without their main midfield man.
The wins this season in the three Championship games he has missed, suggests they can get by.
Further up the pitch from the midfield holding role, it will be interesting to see who Neil plays up front.
Will he be tempted to change from David Nugent, Tom Barkhuizen and Sean Maguire, the forward line in use against both Fulham and West Bromwich Albion?
There is a clamour for Jayden Stockley to start as the main striker.
We have become used to seeing him come off the bench as an impact player and perhaps using him from the start would bring an different dynamic.
Scott Sinclair is an option to add some pace down the left wing after being benched for the last two games.
That breather might just have done him good, let things settle down after his hectic January arrival.
After QPR, it is down to single figures of games in the regular season.
With every team in the top eight or nine having to play at least two of the sides around them, there are going to be lots of twists and turns between now and May 2.
Can PNE make the play-off at this level for the first time in 11 years?