Dave Seddon's verdict: Preston North End move into survival mode by sacking Alex Neil ahead of eight huge Championship games
Preston North End have gone into survival mode with the sacking of Alex Neil and the appointment of Frankie McAvoy as interim head coach for the rest of the season.
That remainder of the 2020/21 campaign consists of eight games between April 2 and May 1, during which the Lilywhites’ Championship future is at stake.
It is a big task which has been placed in McAvoy’s hands as he steps up to fill the breach left by Sunday’s dismissal of his long-time boss Neil.
North End’s 16th position might at first glance just look like a lower mid-table slot, with room to spare between themselves and the bottom three. That’s not taking into account third-bottom Rotherham having four games in hand.
More of a worry is when you look on North End’s own doorstep and the form which led to Neil’s downfall.
Just at the moment they need to put aside what other clubs might or not do, and aim to put things right themselves.
That means delivering two wins minimum, a third and fourth even better.
Winning two would take PNE on to 50 points which tends to be enough.
Often 53 points is seen as the high water mark but 50 usually does the trick.
On current form and with the fixture list being how it is, McAvoy has plenty on his plate, so too Steve Thompson, Paul Gallagher and Mike Pollitt, who form the coaching team with him.
Victories have been rare species in 2021, the last one on February 27 against Huddersfield, before that at Blackburn on February 12.
Then you have to go back to January 20 at Birmingham for the other win of the year.
Three wins in 16 matches – and now two need to be pulled out of the hat from the remaining eight games.
The next three fixtures have been well documented.
McAvoy’s former club Norwich come to Deepdale on Good Friday, then he takes North End to Swansea on Easter Monday.
Brentford come here on April 10 to complete the set. Then it is Stoke City (a), Derby (h), Coventry (a), Barnsley (h) and Nottingham Forest (a).
Derby, Coventry and Forest are in a similar predicament to North End in that they need the points to put distance between themselves and the bottom three.
Stoke are mid-table, while Barnsley are top five and gunning for the play-offs.
PNE had clearly lost faith in Neil’s ability to secure the points needed, hence sacking him.
Listening to Neil speak after Saturday’s defeat to Luton, you would say that he had lost confidence in himself.
More accurately, Neil didn’t feel confident with the strength of squad and getting the best out of them.
His line in Saturday’s press conference that he didn’t have a ‘Scooby-Doo’ what his best team was, rang alarm bells. Four defeats in five, with a solitary point taken, had seen much chopping and changing to try and find a solution.
The approach though, still centred on Ched Evans chasing long balls and having to wrestle with defenders in a bid to win possession and find a team-mate.
Without Ben Davies and Ben Pearson, Neil lost faith in being able to build through the thirds. Losing those two would hurt any team and it badly wounded PNE.
Neil had been resigned to losing Pearson for a while.
The midfielder damaged his ankle in December and returned to training early in January.
After the 2-0 defeat at Bristol City on January 16, Neil told the press that Pearson saw his future away from Deepdale.
Losing Davies wasn’t expected, nor Darnell Fisher, the loss of those two really felt by Neil.
Davies had planned to see out the season here and join Celtic in the summer, that all changing when Liverpool came in for the defender.
Fisher might have divided opinion with his style of play but he was important to Neil. Boro making their move for him late in the window was a surprise.
McAvoy, in the background under Neil, now steps into the spotlight and has the international break to get his ideas across ready for Good Friday.
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