Preston North End 1-1 Bristol City: Dave Seddon's verdict on a frustrating afternoon that shows just how far Lilywhites have come in 2019
Such has been the head of steam Preston have worked up of late, it was with an air of frustration that this draw with Bristol City was greeted.
Drawing against a team in sixth spot would not normally be sniffed at but PNE’s season is entering crunch time and every point is precious.
A victory over the Robins would have closed the gap on them to just three points.
The draw means it is ‘as you were’ in terms of bridging the gap and catching-up with the side who occupy the last slot in the play-off positions.
With 11 games to go in the next two months, it could be argued that time is still on North End’s side in terms of a run for the top six.
But as they are having to play catch-up, every point dropped is a missed chance.
For a good chunk of this Deepdale contest, it was advantage Preston.
Daniel Johnson swept them into the lead towards the end of the first half, one they held until the 69th minute.
The frustration at shipping the equaliser was added to by the suggestion Robins scorer Famara Diedhiou was offside when he found the net.
Alex Neil’s men slipped to 12th place, leapfrogged by Hull and Aston Villa.
The missed opportunity was in failing to squeeze up not only on City but Derby, Birmingham and Nottingham Forest – that trio all lost.
Post-match, Neil refused to be too downhearted, his aim very much to still be in touch with the play-offs going into the last three or four games.
The majority of matches between now and then will have to be won in order for that to happen, Preston’s form of late suggesting that it is far from mission impossible.
Saturday was a ninth game unbeaten, of which they have won five – decent in anyone’s book.
The four draws have all been at home, this one going the same way as the visits of Swansea, Derby and Forest.
Neil’s men hit the road now for back-to-back away games, at Blackburn on Saturday and then Middlesbrough a week on Wednesday.
Come back from those two with a healthy return and the Bristol City draw will be able to be regarded as just a bump in the road.
This draw was to at least maintain the sign PNE have over the West Country side.
It was a 12th match unbeaten against them, a run which started more than five years ago.
North End had won their last six against City and that status quo looked like being maintained on Saturday, at least for an hour or so until the visitors found their feet.
Neil’s men enjoyed the better of a first half which wasn’t a great watch all being said.
Those 45 minutes were a tactical fight with space to operate in at something of a premium.
Both sides played it narrow in midfield, Neil clipping his team’s wings for the occasion.
He left Tom Barkhuizen on the bench and instead went for a solid engine room.
Any width came from Brad Potts and Paul Gallagher in tucked-in roles.
Inside of them Ryan Ledson sat deep, with Alan Browne and Johnson in front of him.
Neil was to reason that having control of midfield had served North End well in the past against Lee Johnson’s men.
With his side 1-0 up at the interval and indeed so until the 69th minute, it could be said that it proved to be the right call.
However, in the spell up to the equaliser you could see the visitors building their way into it, helped it must be said by the introduction of Antonine Semenyo from the bench who was a lively customer.
At 1-1, Neil opened up and put on three front men from the bench.
They went close a couple of times near the end, while the visitors could have won it too was it not for a fine save from Declan Rudd.
A draw about fair then? It probably was although I would agree with Neil that PNE did that little bit more than City.
As expected, Ledson got the nod to take Ben Pearson’s place in midfield.
It was more of a surprise to see Johnson starting in place of Barkhuizen, this DJ’s first start since January 12.
Sometimes there has to be a horses for courses approach though, Johnson’s inclusion working out well.
A third change to the side which won at Millwall saw the return of Darnell Fisher for Tom Clarke – the skipper injured in the latter stages at The Den.
Fisher slotted back in well at right-back, while over on the left, Andrew Hughes put in an impressive show.
Sometimes the choice of the sponsors’ for man of the match differs greatly to the rest of the crowd.
From my seat, they were spot-on with their choice of Hughes and the applause which the Welshman received was an endorsement of that.
Hughes was up and down that left side, impressive in his defending and happy to lend a hand going forward.
He had PNE’s first chance of the contest, getting his head to a Gallagher corner only to put it too high.
It was a first half of few clear-cut chances, North End finally hitting the target and taking the lead three minutes before the interval.
Browne was hacked down by Lloyd Kelly a few yards to the left of the penalty box.
Until then, Gallagher had been lifting free-kicks and corners high into the box to find colleagues that way.
This time he squared the free-kick low in the direction of Johnson in the middle.
Johnson met it perfectly, sweeping a left-foot first-time finish into the roof of the net from 12 yards.
It was his sixth goal of the season and first from open play since September.
City’s equaliser came in the 69th minute, pressure having been building before that in the form of three or four shots from distance.
Ironically it came not too long after a sweeping Preston move down the left had set up a shot for Potts which had been blocked.
A corner from former PNE midfielder Josh Brownhill was headed down by Marlon Pack, Diedhiou turning inside the six-yard box to shoot home.
Rudd later saved well from Semenyo, with Preston close to a stoppage-time winner when Browne headed wide.