With the odd exception, trips to Bramall Lane over the last quarter of the century have been as enjoyable as a visit to the dentist’s chair and I’m not talking about the Paul Gascoigne version.
North End fans were in high spirits in the pubs of Sheffield prior to what was hopefully not our last away trip of a long season, but most were in hope rather than expectation that our flickering play-off flame could keep burning until the final game of the season. An efficient display and a solitary goal by Alan Browne in the second half sealed a rare victory at this venue and no doubt the fans returning from Yorkshire will have given the Baluga song another vociferous airing on their journey home. To have taken our season to the last game is a great credit to the management team and playing staff. But although stranger things have happened in football I feel that we are destined to miss out on a play-off spot by the slimmest of margins. The game itself was typical of some of our performances on the road this season as we dug deep in the first half and defended well before hitting the Blades with a sucker punch, then comfortably seeing out the game in the closing stages. Analysing our season it’s safe to say that our performances away from Deepdale have been far better and if we could have matched our away form at home, we would have been firmly entrenched in one of those coveted play off spots this weekend entertaining the mind-boggling prospect of a ticket to the riches of the Premier League. Over a season luck tends to even itself out and I think we have had a great season even if we fail to finish in the top six. After the turmoil of the summer and departure of Simon Grayson and last season’s player of the year Aiden McGeady even the most optimistic of fans would have to been hard pressed to have predicted a play off challenge.
Just one league game to go and North End are still running in the play-off race after this hard fought 1-0 against Sheffield United. It wasn’t our most graceful performance of the season but it was certainly one of our most gutsiest as the Blades and the Lilywhites fought to stay in the promotion race. A goal just before the hour by Alan Browne was enough to give Alex Neil’s men the win as PNE threw body and soul at everything the home side could throw at them. Although the Blades had the majority of the ball and chances I thought it was North End who always looked the more likely to score and sure enough Browny did the business in front of the visiting 1,610 fans. The game started off at a quick pace with North End in their lucky green kit showing four changes from the side that started against Norwich City, with Ben Davies, Josh Harrop, Daniel Johnson and Sean Maguire replacing Tom Clarke, Paul Gallagher, Billy Bodin and Tom Barkhuizen. The young North End side found it a little tough early on after starting the better and the home side settled into their usual pattern. After an initial chance for North End from Robinson, ex-PNE man Leon Clarke had two shots saved as the North End rearguard started to dig in for what was going to be a long afternoon. Cunningham made the save of the game with his head just before the break as North End went in level after doing most of the defending in the first half. We started a little more on the front foot in the second period as we kicked towards our own fans, who I have to say made plenty of noise all afternoon although they were outnumbered by about 16 to 1. The crucial moment came 12 minutes into the second half when a Harrop shot was only parried by Blackman in the home goal and in raced Alan Browne, shrugging off the challenge to slot the ball into the net for what was to be the winning goal for North End. We had the ball in the net 10 minutes later but Tom Clarke was ruled offside by the linesman even though the ball looked like it had been headed backwards. PNE had to defend hard for the last period of the game but saw it out well even though there were one or two last-ditch blocks and tackles as the show now rolls on to Deepdale on Sunday. I’m sure the manager would be the first to say that this was not our best display of the season but it was gritty and determined against a direct Sheffield United side who were a little physical to say the least. However, Preston held their own in that department and showed why the team has undoubtedly made further progress under Alex Neil this season. North End must now find their ninth home win of the season next Sunday lunchtime as relegation-threatened Burton Albion provide the final opposition of the normal season. North End simply have to win the game and hope that our friends from Oakwell can save their season and do us a massive favour at Pride Park.