IN-DEPTH: Ben Pearson keeping his cool just as PNE’s play-off bid hots up

Old habits die hard, or so the saying goes.

But Ben Pearson is well aware he has had to change his ways to ensure he can be at the centre of Preston’s Championship run-in.

Ben Pearson admits he has been warned about his conduct by manager Alex Neil

Ben Pearson admits he has been warned about his conduct by manager Alex Neil

The tough-tackling midfielder has been periously placed on 14 yellow cards for the last five games knowing one more would see a three-game ban kick in.

Should that come in the crunch final-day clash with Burton at Deepdale on Sunday, the former Manchester United man will miss the next three games.

If seventh-placed PNE get the better of the Brewers and Barnsley beat Derby, then that would mean he would miss the play-off semi-finals and a potential Wembley decider for a place in the Premier League.

“Probably the manager saying he’d fine me if I got to 15 put me off from making a tackle,” Pearson says with a smile.

Booked 14 times this season, Pearson's red card at Leeds earlier in the season was the first of his career

Booked 14 times this season, Pearson's red card at Leeds earlier in the season was the first of his career

“I think I’ve only been booked once in the last eight games though.

“If someone goes past and usually I bring them down then I’ve left them.

“There have probably been five or six times where I’ve let someone go just knowing I’m on 14.

“You don’t want to miss the run into the play-offs and you don’t want to miss the play-offs themselves if we get there.

Ben Pearson in action last time out against Sheffield United

Ben Pearson in action last time out against Sheffield United

“If I get 15 I miss next season as well so that’s been a big factor in not tackling as much and staying out of things.

“It’s been a conscious decision and I’m only tackling when I know I can make it.

“I’ve calmed down a bit and made sure I don’t do anything daft to get that booking because I don’t want to miss the most important games of the season.”

Surely though, the 23-year-old being on a leash takes something away from his combative approach?

Ben Pearson receives treatment from physio Matt Jackson during PNE's defeat at Reading

Ben Pearson receives treatment from physio Matt Jackson during PNE's defeat at Reading

“I don’t think it’s been that noticeable,” said Pearson, who is joined on 14 bookings by Darnell Fisher.

“I’ve not seen a difference in a negative way but sort of being a bit more cautious has affected me a little bit.

“I’m not steaming in and getting riled up as much.

“My form’s been okay though in the past 10 games so I don’t think it’s been detrimental to that.”

It’s so far, so good on the disciplinary front in recent weeks, meaning Pearson is set to line up against Burton on Sunday lunchtime, injury permitting.

With North End having made all their three substitutions, the midfielder hobbled through the closing stages of the win at Sheffield United last time out, to the concern of fans and manager alike.

“I just got bad cramp,” Pearson said.

“It’s the earliest I’ve had it this year which is probably just down to the amount of games I’ve played and the intensity that we play at.

“I got cramp in my hamstring at first, then in my calf. But I’m fine. It’s been okay in training this week.”

At the start of the season many around Deepdale would have taken this final-day scenario.

Yes, Alex Neil’s side need a favour to end his first season in charge on a high.

But for them to be in the mix right until the final whistle of game 46 represents a marked improvement on the first two years back in the Championship which brought identical 11th-placed 
finishes on 62 points.

Pearson admits there is a sense of mixed emotions, given how well the Lilywhites have fared for spells this season.

“If you’d probably asked us before we kicked a ball then I think we’d have taken being two points off, going into the last game of the season with two teams in it,” he said.

“But as the season’s gone on there have been missed opportunities where you think we should be in there by now.

“When you look at probably Derby recently, when we got beaten 1-0, and Norwich it’s disappointing that we’ve left it until now to be in with a shout but I think at the start of the season we would have taken it.”

History tells us that should North End squeeze in at the death then they are in prime position to upset the odds and reach the promised land for the first time.

“With hitting form now, if we were to get in it probably would be the perfect scenario – going under the radar and then sneaking in on the last game of the season,” Pearson said.

“I think it would be good for momentum to get in on the final day and we’ve had a good chance if we did get in.”

Given what is at stake, Sunday’s game represents the biggest in the careers of many of an emerging North End squad.

It is also a win-or-bust situation for Nigel Clough’s visitors who are fighting for their Championship lives having pulled things back from the brink in recent weeks.

Despite the gravity of what could be achieved, Pearson insists there should be an element of freedom as to how North End approach things, with the onus firmly on Derby to get the job done.

“I don’t think there are any nerves in the squad,” he said

“It’s something we’ll enjoy.

“It’s out of our hands which is less pressure on us.

“We’ve just got to go out there and win the game and hope Derby lose.

“It’s as simple as that really.

“Burton need to win as well so I think they’ll have to come out and score goals and hopefully that will play into our hands.

“If you play a side that’s got nothing to play for then it’s probably slightly more difficult, as we’ve found.

“Burton are in form, though, and have won their last couple.

“It will be a tough game but we’ve got a squad that’s ready for the battle they will bring.”

Whatever happens, Pearson is hoping PNE can put on a show for what could be a big Deepdale crowd.

“It would be great if the fans come in numbers and hopefully we can put in a performance which makes a lot of them stay for next season,” he said.

“We’ve had 11 or 12 thousand more often than not this season but if we do get a bigger number then it shows the fans are there.”