Preston North End: Review of the 2020/21 season. Part 3 - January and February
January was a big month off the pitch while on it, Preston North End’s slide in form started to happen.
The Lilywhites had vowed to freshen up the squad after making only two signings in the previous two windows.
Few would have imagined that by the close of the winter window, eight players would have arrived at Deepdale and eight would have left.
More on the window later. On the pitch North End were beaten 1-0 by Nottingham Forest in the first encounter of 2021.
Their interest in the FA Cup ended at the first hurdle, Wycombe beating them 4-1 at Adams Park.
It was a dreadful display, PNE 3-0 down inside half an hour – Emil Riis pulling a goal back from the spot before half-time.
Alex Neil had rotated the squad for the tie, a move which backfired.
A third defeat was to follow the week after against Bristol City.
It piled the pressure on Preston’s midweek visit to Birmingham City.
But on a filthy night at St Andrew’s, North End delivered the goods for the first time in January.
Scott Sinclair fired them to a 1-0 win, the goal scored impressively on the counter-attack.
The game was a 300th in a Preston shirt for Paul Huntington, the Cumbrian Cannavaro standing tall to help keep a clean sheet in difficult conditions.
PNE picked up a point in their next game, drawing 0-0 at home to Reading – the Royals missing a penalty.
The final match of the month saw North End lose 1-0 to Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough.
That was the tale of the tape on the pitch, with events in the transfer market anything but dull.
Three sales made by the Lilywhites were significant at the end of the window.
Ben Pearson headed out after five years at Deepdale, sold to Bournemouth.
The midfielder had made it clear he wasn’t going to sign a new contract and injury had kept him out from December through to early January.
It was disappointing to see Pearson join another club in the Championship but that was the one offer on the table.
Another departure saw Darnell Fisher sign for Middlesbrough.
That one came out of the blue somewhat and was done on the same day Pearson left.
Neil had been prepared for Pearson’s exit, however the sale of Fisher seemed to catch him off guard.
The headline-grabbing sale though, was that of Ben Davies to Liverpool.
Until the penultimate day of the window, Davies’ destination was going to be Celtic – he was going to sign a pre-contract agreement ahead of a summer move.
Liverpool came in less than 48 hours before the deadline and took him to Anfield, it certainly being the shock move of the window.
The exits of Davies, Fisher and Pearson followed loan moves out of Deepdale for Josh Harrop, Jayden Stockley, Ethan Walker, Josh Earl and David Nugent.
Coming in the other direction, Ben Whiteman was the one player North End paid money for – the midfielder signed from Doncaster in a £1.6m deal.
Daniel Iversen, Jayson Molumby, Ched Evans, Greg Cunningham, Sepp van den Berg, Liam Lindsay and Anthony Gordon were signed on loan.
Once the window closed, the loans for Cunningham and Evans were turned into short-term permanent moves.
That was necessary as clubs can only name five loan players in a matchday squad, so it would have meant two of the hired help sitting in the stand every game.
History will show it was too much change for North End in one go, and it took a couple of months and a change of manager for things to start to gel.
On the contract front there was better news, with Alan Browne and later Daniel Johnson signing new deals.
The contract saga involving the midfield pair, together with Pearson and Davies, had cast its shadow over the club since the autumn.
It took PNE just 17 seconds to concede their first goal in February.
They hosted Rotherham at Deepdale and Joe Rafferty managed to send a diving header into his own net when attempting to clear a cross.
The Millers later doubled their lead before Ched Evans pulled one back.
Evans was one of six of PNE’s newcomers to start the game, with Sepp van den Berg joining the action from the bench later on.
It was the first game played without Ben Davies and came soon after the sales of Ben Pearson and Darnell Fisher.
North End headed next to Ewood Park to face Blackburn, a Friday night clash shown live on Sky TV.
With how Rovers had taken PNE apart at Deepdale in the reverse fixture, there were fears of a repeat.
In his time as manager though, Alex Neil had often come up with a result when it was needed, and the derby clash was no exception.
Greg Cunningham made his first start since returning to PNE in January and fired them ahead with a fine finish from the edge of the box.
Liam Lindsay doubled the lead, meeting a Ryan Ledson corner at the near post to head into the net. Adam Armstrong halved the deficit from the penalty spot before half-time.
North End saw the second half out to secure a big win, striker Evans getting the man of the match award from the Sky pundits.
Inconsistency had dogged PNE throughout the season and the win over Rovers gave way to a 1-0 defeat to Watford at Deepdale.
It wasn’t a classic by any stretch of the imagination, the Hornets’ winner coming from a penalty conceded by Tom Barkhuizen.
North End’s next game was nothing short of a disaster, with them hammered 4-0 by Cardiff City.
They fell behind inside a minute from the spot, a third game in a row they’d given a penalty away.
Cardiff’s second came moments into the second half, leaving PNE with an uphill struggle.
They threw away a lifeline when they missed two penalties in the space of 60 seconds.
When substitute Anthony Gordon went to ground in the box, referee Jeremy Simpson pointed to the spot.
Paul Gallagher saw his penalty parried and as he moved to meet the rebound, was tripped from behind.
Evans took the second penalty and saw it saved by Bluebirds keeper Dillon Phillips.
The pressure was really on North End heading into two home games against Queens Park Rangers and Huddersfield.
They drew 0-0 with QPR and then got a first home win of the year against Huddersfield.
Brad Potts set them on their way to victory with low finish after Scott Sinclair’s shot had been parried.
Then two great goals on the counter-attack from Evans and Sinclair clinched the points in the second half.
The way North End were able to cut Huddersfield open just showed what they were capable of.
But we had seen it far too infrequently, with supporters questioning what they saw as a lack of attacking intent from Neil.
Following the win over Huddersfield, attention turned to March’s fixtures – it proved to be a big month.
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