Three Preston North End supporters reflect on narrowly missing out on the Championship play-offs
North End did what they had to do in front of more than 17,000 at Deepdale but a big home win for Derby at home to Barnsley ensured it was Championship football again next season but a hugely creditable seventh place finish.
The usual end of season nerves preceded the game but as Derby scored and then went two up it was looking more and more likely that the result at Deepdale would be of no consequence.
Having said that the boys made hard work of the 2-1 victory with Billy Bodin sent of for a second yellow after simulation in the Brewers box as he tried to win a penalty early in the second half. Burton equalised against 10-man North End but with the visitors having to go for the win there were gaps at the back and Louis Moult gave North End the points with a tap in late on.
The game started in glorious sunshine at Deepdale with the home side making two changes from the team that won at Bramalll Lane last week. Billy Bodin came in for Daniel Johnson and Tommy Clarke started in place of Ben Davies.
North End did most of the early attacking and looked dangerous every time they went forward. Burton were giving it 100% as you would expect them to but North End were a little calmer on the ball and it was no surprise when Callum Robinson gave us the lead with a header from six yards out after 25 minutes.
North End Had the ball in the net again 10minutes from the break but Bodin was adjudged to have handled and was cautioned by referee Madley. Burton had a half chance just before the break but North End went in looking good value for their lead.
The dynamics of the game changed somewhat not long after the break when Bodin went down in the box and the referee decided it was a dive and so booked Bodin for the second time and North End were down to 10 men. The dismissal certainly encouraged the visitors and Burton started to take the initiative and look for the equalising goal.
The visitors pressure finally told after sixty five minutes when Akpan curled a beauty past Rudd to put the Brewers level and from then on it was game on. With Derby winning comfortably it was Burton who the focus was on and who were safe then they were down as things stood and then they were safe again.
However North End put the final nail in the Burton coffin in the third minute of injury time when Pearson broke clear and squared to Moult who gleefully tapped home to give North End all three points.
So near and yet so far for North End ending the season in seventh place with a hugely creditable 73 points to show for this seasons efforts.
No doubt that the inquest will throw up many reasons why not but I think we should focus more on why North End got to this points total and applaud the squad and the management team for taking the club on another level from last season with one of the lowest budgets in the league.
I suppose the problem the board and Alex Neil will now have is that the expectation next season will be to take the club on further and to achieve a top six position, something that won’t be easy given the allocation of budget if previous seasons are to be a benchmark.
I entered the ground to the tune of "Carry Me Home" and although our late goal ensured a win it was not enough.
Just like the counters in the strategy board game Ludo, three teams were already safely home inside the box which required us to basically roll a six to grab the last position and become the last side home.
The atmosphere inside the ground was electric as the game kicked off with 15,000 noisy home fans full of hope that their deep yearning and dream of Premier League football would not end but unfortunately it soon became apparent that we would need to throw a double six as the scoreline from Pride Park filtered through to the faithful.
We should have been three goals to the better by half-time but following what I thought was a ridiculous sending off for so called simulation the fascinating end of season denouement took more turns than an Agatha Christie novel but sadly for us it was all centred around our opponents fate rather than our own.
Having an operating budget closer to the bottom six than the top six and finishing a credible seventh the season can be deemed as being a good one but I did not feel like smoking a cigar in celebration but in time when the disappointment settles maybe in the summer I might stretch to lighting up a slim panatella.
I left the stadium to the tune of "Don’t Stop Believing" and as seasoned North End fans that is what we all must do.
There was no magical end to the day as was the case nine years ago when Sean St Ledger’s header gatecrashed us into the play off picture but maybe the law of averages says that one day our time will come.
Hopefully it will be a moment to savour if we can keep the club on an upward curve and keep making the steady progress which we have done in recent years and seasons.
So it wasn’t to be in terms of making the final play-off place in a game full of drama and heartache, especially for the Burton fans. One moment they looked safe from relegation and the next they were down.
I have heard a number of fans around me in recent weeks ruing missed opportunities this season, most notably at home, which in the end meant we fell just short of the dotted line. I genuinely do not think of the season overall in these terms.
Instead, I have watched my club recover from a first day loss of a successful manager that led to the appointment of another with a different philosophy and style of play that has no-doubt been of benefit to the team as a whole.
It has also been clear that the team creates far more opportunities than previous and equally as clear that we don’t convert enough of them into goals. However, we have continued to make steady progress for the fifth season running since the appointment of Simon Grayson as team manager in combination with Peter Ridsdale looking after the other side of the club on behalf of Mr Hemmings.
It is not insignificant that Alex Neil has nothing but praise for the way the club is run and in the way he is allowed to manage team affairs and it is this new combination that now needs a period of time to take the club to the next level in terms of the squad.
So, 73 points against the 61 of last, tells the tale of progress in real terms and it will be in the summer that critical signings will need to be made in order to determine our chances in the year ahead. As for the game, North End should have been three-nil up at half-time, but went into the break with only a single goal advantage.
One of those chances had come in the form of Billy Bodin getting what appeared to be a headed ball into the net, only to be given a yellow card for hand-ball. This was significant in the early period of the second half as he received another yellow in the box for ‘diving’ and so left the field of play.
This gave a significant boost to Burton who made good use of the extra man to equalise in the 63rd minute. At this point, other results elsewhere meant that they would have staved off relegation in a near Houdini-like escaped from the trap-door.
Instead their hearts were to be broken by a combination of Bolton’s late win at home to Nottingham Forest and a Preston breakaway goal in stoppage time that firmly cemented the 73 points onto the board.
Reasons to be cheerful? In my view, yes … and so let’s look forward to the time ahead and not get too down.