I left the ground on Saturday with renewed optimism and the feeling that maybe there might be room for a late passenger to jump on board the ship Play-off before it leaves the shore.
The win over QPR left us just six points away from sixth position and, with two huge games coming up against sides directly above us in the next two weeks, the scramble for one of those coveted places could become more frenzied as the season heads towards the Easter period. Under the last manager my convictions as a fan were severely tested but after four years of progress under the tenure of Simon Grayson things are certainly looking good at the moment.We began very slowly looking vulnerable at the back and missing the injured Tyius Browning and conceded a sloppy goal just after the half-hour mark . But another fantastic goal of real quality just before the interval from man of the match Aiden McGeady put us back on an even keel. In the second half we pulverised Rangers and after Jordan Hugill scored with just under 20 minutes to go, there was no real doubt in my mind of the game’s eventual outcome. The task was made easier when our opponents were reduced to ten men shortly after. Prior to that their continuous time wasting tactics had given me the feeling that they were more than happy with a draw. QPR had no answer to the pace which we have an abundance of at the moment in a squad which has strength in depth and is brimming with confidence. On another day Daryl Horgan, who looks a real find, would have taken the man of the match award following another dazzling display and I was also impressed with another pacy new signing, substitute Tom Barkhuizen, who looks like he could be another useful acquisition similar to Jordan Hugill after he develops and gains more experience.
Safety first for North End as another year of Championship football was guaranteed with this 2-1 home win against QPR. The reality, of course, is that all eyes are on the other end of the table with North End just six points from the play-offs with several team above them to play. North End had to battle for a while after going a goal behind to a cheeky effort from Lualua but our persistence paid off with an Aiden McGeady special and a winner from Jordan Hugill. Injuries to Pearson and Browning meant a return to action for Tommy Spurr and Daniel Johnson and although Simon Grayson changed the formation around after the break, I thought that our discipline and general play on the day was well worth the win and keeps the season very much alive with plenty left to play for. The manager decided to go with a very interesting 3-4-1-2 formation with McGeady playing behind the front two and Horgan and Cunninham playing as the wide men in the four. The game was quite even in terms of possession early on but North End always looked the more likely although early chances were at a premium. The visitors took the lead when a ball from a throw on the right went through Spurr`s legs and Lualua back flicked the ball past Maxwell who could do nothing about it. It was a touch of class from the loanee but the goal galvanised North End into action. Robinson was put through in the inside right position although his shot was very tame but then McGeady picked up the ball in the inside left position, cut in and fired a superb shot past Smithies and into the corner of the net to put North End level at the break. The manager reverted to a more traditional 4-4-2 after the break. The lead finally came when a Horgan corner from the left found Hugill and although his initial effort was saved, the leading scorer reacted quickly enough to follow up and knock the ball home for his 11th goal of the season. Insult to injury was added for QPR when Freeman was sent off. Perhaps being under the radar suits North End and all attention now turns to Fulham next Saturday and what could be the biggest game of the season both on and off the field. This could be the Gentry Day to beat all Gentry Days with a following potentially heading towards 3,000.
Ten points out of the last possible 12 available edged North End closer to that precious final play-off spot. In the end a deserved win against a backdrop of forced changes due to injury that really shows how the team’s strength in depth has slowly, but surely, been built-up by the current management team over a period of four years. In the week of Claudio Ranieri’s sacking, a mere nine months or so after pulling off the impossible dream that gives all long-suffering fans hope, the long-term investment by PNE owner Trevor Hemmings and his staff in incremental progression appears to be bearing fruit. Don’t get me wrong, the current push would have to be maintained over the coming weeks if Preston are going to stand any chance of being in the pack come May, but at least we now stand a chance against teams with much bigger budgets than ourselves – a real source of pride for all concerned. As for the game itself, those injuries meant the hosts started with an awkward line-up of three at the back supported by wingbacks in the form of Daryl Horgan and Greg Cunningham. It didn’t work, as an ordinary looking QPR side seemed to find gaps far too easily for my liking in the opening 30 minutes of the match. Even so, what felt like a sloppily conceded goal from a simple long throw came as something of a surprise, with real anger and frustration evident in keeper Chris Maxwell’s reaction. Thank goodness the men in white shirts got back into game in the closing moments of the half as Aiden McGeady showed the kind of class and skill that marks him out at this level with a peach of goal from outside the box. The second half was a different affair, with Preston going to 4-4-2 and immediately looking more comfortable. They took hold of the match and they were eventually rewarded with a winning goal from Jordan Hugill.
Not the greatest of games you’re likely to see at Deepdale, but one that ended in three points for North End and at this stage of the season, that’s what’s most important. With two key players in Pearson and Browning out injured, the side was given a bit of a reshuffle to accommodate the incoming Spurr and Johnson. Preston started fairly well, something that we’ve been working on, and it seems to be paying off over recent weeks. The side were threatening, but early on that final ball and clinical edge that was needed was just lacking. After 36 minutes the visitors found themselves in front when Lualua managed to backheel the ball into the net. North End really were crying out for a moment of class to get them back into this one, and the man of the moment delivered again, McGeady cuts inside a defender before unleashing an effort in to the bottom corner. In the second half, Preston really tried to push on a little bit, but I’d say we never really hit top gear in this one, but on the day, we did just enough to see us over the line. With just under 20 minutes, Hugill found himself free in the area and bundled the ball home at the second attempt from Horgan’s corner. A much needed confidence-boosting goal from the striker after last week’s penalty miss. We move up to eighth, just short of the play-offs still, but they are not quite out of sight yet.