Not the best game I have ever seen in 50 years at Deepdale but a precious three points just the same for a North End side struggling to break down 10-man QPR.
Rangers played well over 75 minutes with 10 men and almost held out for the point before Gally put a peach of a ball through for Jordan Hugill to prod home and to give North End the win they deserved on the day. We had plenty of possession and created one or two decent chances but it was mid-table fare to be honest and with the usual low pre-Christmans crowd for a not particularly attractive game, the atmosphere inside Deepdale was sometimes muted on a mild and damp December afternoon. Nevertheless the boys did the job in the end and to be honest it is winning that matters through these winter months to set ourselves up fro the spring. Although we had plenty of the ball early on the visitors looked dangerous on the counter attack. Alan Browne had two chances in the same passage of play early on with a deflected shot and a header that went over the bar. A pinpoint Gallagher free-kick found Tom Clarke but the skippers header went just past the post with Smithies in the QPR goal rooted to the spot. Mackie was then shown a red card for a tackle going over the top on Clarke but we still found it difficult to break the 4-4-1 down as Rangers dropped anchor. Ben Pearson had a shot that went wide but it wasn’t a first half that will be remembered for its numerous chances on goal. At half-time Alex Neil made two changes bringing on O’Connor for Clarke and replacing Alan Browne with Josh Harrop. I thought it was a little harsh on Browne who had looked effective in the first period. North End were clearly on top and Robinson had a shot blocked before it looked like Gally had broken the deadlock but his effort sneaked agonisingly wide. In the 88th minute, and with many giving up hope, Gallagher played a superb ball into the path of Hugill in the centre forward position and the striker acclerated forward and knocked the ball past Smithies to collect the points. This wasn’t a classic but it was a great three points after the struggles we have had at home in the last few months. Much anticipation now surrounds the January transfer window.
Feeling relieved gives you a feeling of cheerfulness or optimism following the ending of a period of anxiety, pain or distress. This was exactly how I felt on Saturday when my lungs exhaled a large amount of air after Jordan Hugill had tucked away Paul Gallagher’s through pass two minutes from time to give us our first home win since September. On the night of the X Factor final there was no one on the pitch really impressing the man of the match judges, with Hugill just shading it after scoring his first goal in five matches. For three quarters of the game we had played against 10 men but Rangers surprisingly for a side who had not won on the road in the Championship for 16 games coped quite well with the deficit and also looked dangerous at times on the counter-attack. In stoppage time we saw a brief return of the old Simon Grayson tactic of running the ball into the corner flag but although we got a bit edgy at the death we were never under any serious pressure once we had scored. In the first half we created very little up front but manager Alex Neil showed his tactical mettle at half-time in making two brave substitutions which changed his side’s formation. Following the introduction of Josh Harrop, a player I feel deserves to start more often on a regular basis, we showed more attacking creativity and had a couple of periods of sustained pressure which lifted the crowd out of their slumber, as Deepdale had become more like Sleepdale on a cold, grey, dismal winter afternoon. The big positive to be taken from the game is its result which stretched our unbeaten run to four games and the fact that it cemented our position in the top half of the table which was important as the season heads towards its halfway point and a busy Christmas and New Year period.
Someone once said that football is “a funny old game” and it was this thought that followed me out of the ground into the streets of early winter. Despite the visitors being on a bad run of form and reduced to 10 men after only 22 minutes, it felt like North End would never score as an atmosphere of frustration built-up in the home stands. The sending off took those around me by surprise, as we all expected a yellow card to be produced from a foul on returning captain Tom Clarke. However, the referee was close to the incident and the uncharacteristic howl of pain from Clarke as he fell to the ground hinted at something more. The reduction in opposition numbers was un-noticeable for the remainder of the first half, even though later video highlights showed Preston spurning three or four decent opportunities that probably left Alan Browne in particular wishing he had done better. The start of the second period brought about a change of formation via two substitutions, with Kevin O’Connor and Josh Harrop replacing Clarke and Browne. This brought more forward play to the field, but did not lead to the goals expected from the numerous attacking waves in and around the QPR penalty area. It simply felt like we had no incisive edge to finish them off and this, combined with the worry of them stealing a win from one of their rare excursions upfield, led to the increasing disgruntled murmurings in the crowd. But this is football, where it sometimes only needs one piece of magic to break a deadlock and which in this case was supplied by a beauty of a defence splitting pass by Paul Gallagher through to Jordan Hugill. The big striker appeared to get a poor touch on the ball as he burst through, but had that striker’s instinct to poke the ball under the advancing keeper and seal a victory that was otherwise vanishing in front of our eyes. So yes, football is a funny old game.