Overall a bit of a strange one this, with Preston again suffering from “a game of two-halves” syndrome that left them one-nil down at the break and, briefly, 2-1 up in the opening period of the second.
At that point it looked like North End would overwhelm a fragile-looking Sunderland defence that is often the hallmark of teams on a losing streak. However, in the end it proved to be a mad five minutes of three goals that ended with Aiden McGeady’s equaliser following some poor defending. Whether or not it was rising expectation that caused that initial splutter, or more simply, a well-drilled visiting side taking advantage of Simon Grayson’s intimate knowledge of the PNE squad, I just don’t know. Whatever it was, things were not quite clicking, with some poor decisions and a tendency to be harassed and bullied into making mistakes. Clearly, the pep talk over the Bovril did the trick as North End gave a much better account of themselves after the break. The equaliser, direct from Josh Harrop’s free-kick, was followed by a delightful volley smashed home by Jordan Hugill. For me, the controversy of McGeady’s celebration only two minutes later was over-blown a bit. If players either leave under a cloud or say something disrespectful in the media about their old team, then I can understand stick from the crowd. As neither seems to apply here, this fan at least was a wee bit disappointed at the boos for a player who delighted us all so much just a few short months ago. More importantly it allowed Sunderland to regain their confidence and, despite Preston pressing for a winning goal, they held firm for a precious point to stop their own rot. No doubt Alex Neil will use the international break to concentrate on building consistency into a promising team that is still in a nice position only one match away from the season’s quarter point.
For the second game running we played a side who were plying their trade in the Premier League last season and once again our young side proved that we were up to the task. We acquitted ourselves well in a match which ended up all square in a four-goal thriller. The game saw the return of former manager Simon Grayson, who must have felt like he had run over a black cat on his journey north to Sunderland this summer. The Sunderland side was made up largely of players who had played in the top flight last season, a point made in a press interview by Aiden McGeady – our player of the year last term. McGeady, I felt, was unfairly booed for his pre-match comments but his unprofessional conduct in running the full length of the pitch after scoring the equalising goal to goad the Town End – instead of celebrating in front of his own fans – will now deservedly get him the type of hostile reception on future visits similar to those shown in the past to former idols David Healy and Tony Ellis. It is a shame that McGeady, one of the best players I have seen at Deepdale in the last 20 years, has undone all his good work by his foolish actions and upset the fans of his former employers, who showed great respect to their old manager Grayson and ex-player Billy Jones. The better managers have the ability to change their team and style of play to nullify the capabilities of their opponents. And Alex Neil proved his pedigree by moving Hugill out wide in a tactical tweak which reaped dividends as the burly striker first won a free-kick which led to the equalising goal, before smashing in a shot from the edge of the area two minutes later to put us in the lead. Our joy was only short lived and I felt that this was a fair result in a hard-fought game.
Alex Neil asked his boys to play the game and not the occasion before this clash with Sunderland. But I thought that the occasion did get to one or two of the boys and hence our performance was not quite up to that of recent standards. Having said that, I thought this was a very decent game of football and to be fair to Sunderland I thought they were much more like the Black Cats I expected to see than the one languishing second-bottom in the Championship. North End conceded a poor opening goal in the first half but took the lead via a deflected Josh Harrop free-kick and a scorcher of a goal from Jordan Hugill, who fired a dipping shot home from the edge of the box. Football is a funny old game and in true tradition it was McGeady who equalised with a well-placed shot past Maxwell to earn the visitors a well earned draw on a somewhat frantic afternoon. North End started the game a lot more sedately than in recent weeks and it was Sunderland who looked the livelier early in the game . We just seemed to be second best in some of the 50/50 balls in the middle of the park clearly missing the impact of either Ben Pearson or John Welsh. Sunderland took the lead when a needlessly conceded free-kick taken by ex-North End loanee Browning, found Honeyman in space and he easily beat Maxwell with a well placed shot. After the break we came out much more like our old selves. We levelled matters up in the 56th minute. A Harrop free-kick from the left angle of the box was hit with pace and accuracy and via a deflection gave Steele no chance in the Black Cats goal. Less than two minutes later North End were in front when a ball sat up beautifully for Hugill and the £8m-rated striker volleyed home a beauty. In a crazy period of play, just two minutes later Sunderland were level when McGeady placed a left foot shot past Maxwell and ran 70 yards to celebrate in front of the Town End. Perhaps it wasn’t the smartest thing to do but McGeady himself had upped the ante with some pre-match comments. So a draw it ended up and probably the right result in terms of chances and play. I suspect both managers will be slightly disappointed that their side didn’t take all three points.