It’s do or die time again for PNE

Preston striker Joe Garner had little service to give the fans much to shout about in Essex
Preston striker Joe Garner had little service to give the fans much to shout about in Essex
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What 3,000 hopeful Preston supporters who travelled to Colchester over the Bank Holiday weekend did not envisage, was the season going into extra-time.

They went to Essex in expectation of the victory which would send PNE back to the Championship after four years away.

Such an opportunity is still there but it is via the play-offs – the hard way – that North End must achieve it.

It is not just the players who have to dust themselves down ready for Chesterfield over two legs on Thursday and Sunday – the fans do too.

They will be at the Proact Stadium in their numbers, just as they have been for all away games this season. The official away attendance of 2,969 at Colchester pushed the average travelling support for this season close to the 1,400 mark.

And let’s have it right, there were a lot more than 2,969 North Enders inside the Weston Homes Community Stadium.

There were plenty in the hospitality seats in the main stand, just behind the press box in fact – it felt more like a home game for me, such was their presence.

At some expense, a number of the travelling supporters had ventured down on Saturday to make a weekend of it.

One town centre pub in Colchester was packed to the rafters with PNE fans on Saturday night, while Clacton-on-Sea out on the Essex coast has probably never had so many visitors from Lancashire in a full holiday season, let alone one weekend.

Other fans set off from Preston at the crack of dawn on Sunday in order to make the lunchtime kick-off – Sky TV asking for the early start in League One and then clashing the second half with Chelsea’s game against Crystal Palace.

Unfortunately, the performance on the pitch did not match the efforts off it.

North End boss Simon Grayson was swift to acknowledge the support and noise which came from behind the goal and down one side of the ground.

Grayson said: “I can’t speak highly enough of them.

“The fans have been outstanding all season, travelling in their numbers.

“It is important we stick together now.

“We can all be disappointed at what happened on Sunday but now we have to go again at Chesterfield.

“We’ve got to try and get to the play-off final and get promoted that way.

“To the fans I say a big thank you. Let’s stick together.”

Nine play-off attempts – and nine failures – does not make for the most upbeat reading as attention is turned to Thursday night and Sunday lunchtime.

It is not being gloomy dredging up such statistics, that is simply what happened in 1989, 1994, 1995, 1999, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2014.

Perhaps it is not all black and white though, each 
play-off campaign having its own little story.

This season is the first where North End have toppled out of an automatic promotion slot into the play-offs so late in the day.

In 1994, they had been in the automatic frame for the first half of the season before fading in the second half.

Five years later, David Moyes’ side did not quite have the legs and finished up in fifth place

Even last season when they had designs on automatic promotion, Preston were never in the top two at any stage.

So this late drop is something totally new and it will be interesting to see how they cope.

As for the other play-off campaigns, North End finished sixth in the 1989/89 campaign and fifth in 1994/95.

The 2001 run to the Millennium Stadium was done against all expectations, Moyes’ men being new to the division.

In 2004/05 under Billy Davies, it was a climb up the table into the play-offs rather than a fall, and similar the next season too.

It was a last-day arrival in the top six in 2009 when Alan Irvine was in charge, very much a case of moving up into them.

Back to the present day and we must not get away from the strong run of form which 
took PNE up to second place from March 2 through to 
May 3.

As Simon Grayson has pointed out, the defeat at Colchester has not turned them into a bad side overnight.

They must learn a lesson from Sunday though, in how 
to handle the big occasion where one result can mean so much.

Against Colchester, the play was too scrappy, too forced even.

The smoothness of Preston’s build-up play disappeared, with too many crosses and passes over-hit.

Finding the killer pass suddenly looked hard work, as did picking out a yellow shirt in the box when Preston got possession out wide.

Fair play to Colchester mind you, they battled for everything and it was hard to begrudge them their win on the day.

It does make you wonder however, why they were fighting relegation in the first place when they were capable of such a performance on Sunday.

North End cannot afford to be as ragged and loose as they were at Colchester when they go to Chesterfield.

They need to believe in themselves first of all, a bit of belief having seemingly slipped away during Sunday’s game.

In the final League One table, Grayson’s men 
finished 20 points clear of the Spireites.

Use that as a motivational tool, not an over-confident one but to tell themselves that over the course of nine months they have posted an impressive number of points and that they should not fear anyone.

They will have to play well over two legs, Paul Cook’s side having come back from 3-0 down at Deepdale in September to draw 3-3.

When North End won 2-0 in Derbyshire in February, Chesterfield still had plenty about them despite going down to 10 men early doors.