Ahead of last Saturday’s draw with Nottingham Forest Alex Neil was most probably caught somewhere between a rock and a hard place.
Following the exertions of the impressive 3-0 win over then league leaders Norwich the previous Wednesday night, North End’s in-form players were asked to do it all again just a few days later.
Unfortunately, there was a sense of inevitability surrounding the flat performance that followed.
All involved – players and manager – admitted that it was a tired Lilywhites XI that struggled to break down a stubborn Forest side who are a completely different proposition under Martin O’Neill.
Neil had quite understandably named the same XI that saw off the Canaries, meaning he had made just one change to his side in the last six games.
That’s some statistic considering how little consistency the PNE boss has had for large parts of the season, given the plethora of injuries and suspensions.
Hindsight though. Oh, hindsight.
Maybe Neil now looks back and thinks even a couple of changes, given the quick turnaround, might have made the difference.
The Scot though, like almost all managers, is clearly in something of a no-win situation in moments like that.
If he had made a handful of alterations to a side that hit top form in midweek and then lost against Forest, then he certainly would have been on the receiving end of some flak from the terraces.
Equally, if you back a group of players who have got through a lot of work to churn out another 90 minutes and not get the result required then there will also be a few ‘what ifs?’.
Perhaps the performances of his three substitutes justified Neil’s thinking.
Jayden Stockley, Daniel Johnson and Lukas Nmecha will all be disappointed that they did not make more of an impact when afforded a chance to force their way back into a side which has almost picked itself for large parts of 2019.
As forgettable and frustrating as the game was, the reaction from supporters on Saturday evening was pleasing to say the least.
In a world where social media is very much black and white, with very little in between, it was heartening to see that the large majority of onlookers had seen the drab draw with Forest for what it was – a decent point that extended PNE’s unbeaten run to seven games.
The football wasn’t as thrilling as it has been in recent weeks but this is the Championship, and you’ve got to learn to get through games in different ways if you are going to be a success.
That a game on home soil against Forest became ‘do not lose’ rather than ‘we must win’ is frustrating yes, but certainly not a disaster.
Added to the wider context of what has been an exciting 2019, it wasn’t really a bad point at all.
Perhaps the online reaction was indication of just how well things have gone in this calendar year.
Having talked on several occasions about how good his side could be when injury-free Neil has been vindicated in recent weeks.
While the sight of his side reaching their potential will please him there will perhaps be a niggling thought about what position North End could find themselves in ahead of Saturday’s trip to Millwall.
But as with team selection quandaries, dealing in ‘what ifs?’ can only lead to some unnecessary torment.
As it is, the PNE boss and his players continue to insist that their season is far from over, the Lilywhites looking to make it eight unbeaten when they go to The Den.
The point against Forest moved them into the top half of the table and the right sequence of results could see them move into the top 10 by 5pm.
Attentions then really will turn to a run at the play-offs, that has moved from downright impossible to unlikely in recent weeks.
Stranger things have happened but history tells us North End will need to go on a scintillating run to sneak into the top six and extend their season beyond the trip to Brentford on May 5.
Over the last 10 seasons the number of points needed to make the play-offs ranges from 68 – as Leicester got in on goal difference back in 2013 – all the way up to 80, which Fulham needed two years ago.
It averages out at 74 which is the total PNE got to make the end-of-season shoot-out in the 2008-09 campaign, pipping Cardiff on the final day having scored one more goal than the Bluebirds over the course of the campaign.
Alan Irvine’s side would then lose out to Sheffield United in the semi-finals.
Currently sitting on 44 points with 13 games to go, PNE need another 30 to reach that number again.
That’s 2.30 per game, or some 10 victories.
It would be a remarkable run of form and might be the minimum required to be in with a shot of playing in the Premier League come August.
Even if PNE go close it should be a heck of a lot of fun between now and May.
And if, as last season, it is a case of missing out by a point or two, please promise me one thing. Don’t turn to the person next to you on the terraces and say, ‘But, what if?’.