Preston North End: Review of the 2020/21 season. Part 4 - March, April and May
March was the month when Preston North End called time on Alex Neil’s tenure as manager at Deepdale.
Patience with Neil ran out after the Lilywhites collected only one point from five games in March, the Scot given his cards the day after a 1-0 home defeat to Luton.
Frankie McAvoy was his replacement on an interim basis, having been Neil’s No.2 in his 44 months with PNE.
After the winning finish to February, North End were brought back down to earth by Millwall on March 2.
They had started well at The Den, Ched Evans volleying a fine early opener.
However, Millwall pegged them back before half-time and then scored the winner four minutes from time.
A home clash four days later with Bournemouth meant a Deepdale return for Ben Pearson.
It wasn’t the type of game when Pearson had to show his fiery nature, the 1-1 draw being quite a decent watch.
The visitors took the lead in the first half but Daniel Johnson’s shot from the edge of the box secured a share of the spoils.
It was to be the briefest pick-ups in form, with North End losing their next three.
They were beaten 1-0 by bottom club Wycombe and while the scoreline might suggest a narrow defeat, the Lilywhites were barely in the game until later.
Neil’s mood post-match was low, with some use of industrial language.
They had another away assignment after that, a trip to Middlesbrough.
It was a fraught evening at the Riverside Stadium as a good start to the game went rapidly downhill.
Jordan Storey sliced a cross into his own net to hand Boro the lead. Then North End’s task became tougher before half-time when Alan Browne was sent off.
The skipper kicked out at Sam Morsy after twice being caught on the head by the Middlesbrough man.
Browne got a straight red, with Morsy’s part going unseen by the officials.
At half-time Neil went on to the pitch to protest about his captain’s dismissal and was himself shown a red card.
He watched the second half stood in the stand, just a couple of rows back from the dugout.
Boro scored again early in the second half, with PNE leaving Teesside empty-handed.
All eyes went on Luton’s visit to Deepdale which was surely a must-win for the Lilywhites. As it dragged on goalless, it turned more into a must-not-lose affair.
They did lose, James Collins’ 83rd-minute shot from a narrow angle hitting Daniel Iversen before rolling over the line.
Post-match Neil looked a beaten man, tellingly saying that he didn’t have a ‘Scooby-Doo’ what his best team was.
He might have well written his P45 with that statement and indeed that came his way the following lunchtime.
McAvoy was given the interim head coach title, with Steve Thompson and Paul Gallagher assisting him.
The 53-year-old Scot had the international break to work with the squad before his first game.
With Norwich, Swansea and Brentford the first three opponents, it looked being a baptism of fire.
Brad Potts probably didn’t realise at the time just how important his 95th-minute equaliser for Preston against Norwich on April 2 was.
It turned the direction of PNE’s campaign, starting a run of results which would secure their Championship status with acres of room to spare and land McAvoy the head coach job full-time.
North End had trailed to Emi Buendia’s 17th-minute goal, the Championship’s player of the year finding the net from 20 yards.
Potts was to find the same corner of the net the clock in the fifth minute of time added on, the substitute’s shot on the turn clipping a defender and beating keeper Tim Krul.
Having taken a point from the leaders, PNE headed to South Wales to take on third place Swansea at the Liberty Stadium.
They had never won there, in fact their last away victory over the Jacks had come at the Vetch Field 60 years ago.
That run was ended with another late goal, home skipper Matt Grimes putting through his own net when Scott Sinclair’s shot had come back off the goalkeeper.
Those two results over Easter probably looked like a false dawn when North End were hammered 5-0 by Brentford on April 10.
Two goals on the counter in the first half put the Bees in command and when McAvoy went gung-ho with his subs in the second half, the visitors picked PNE apart with three more goals in the last 15 minutes.
McAvoy vowed to learn from his mistakes and indeed he did, his side keeping four clean sheets in a row.
A 0-0 draw at Stoke was hardly a thriller but it steadied the ship.
North End beat Derby 3-0, Coventry 1-0 and Barnsley 2-0 as April moved into May.
The Derby win – achieved with goals from Ben Whiteman, Ched Evans and Ryan Ledson – effectively made PNE safe.
Winning against Coventry at St Andrew’s mathematically secured their Championship status.
As it was, the 44 points they had when Alex Neil was sacked would have turned out to be enough, such was the poor late form of teams near the bottom.
Ledson was voted player of the season by supporters and team-mates alike, Sinclair’s long-range strike at Bournemouth winning him goal of the season. Spirits were high heading into the final game of the campaign at Nottingham Forest.
That didn’t immediately transmit on to the City Ground pitch, PNE poor in the first half and falling behind to a superb shot from James Garner.
Tom Bayliss and Liam Lindsay scored in the second half to flip the game on its head and secure a fourth win on the bounce.
By now it looked when rather than if, McAvoy would get the job permanently.
He only had to wait 48 hours, landing the role after being interviewed over Zoom by Trevor Hemmings.
Paul Gallagher officially hung up his boots to join the coaching staff full-time.
The 13th-placed finish which McAvoy guided North End had to, had looked so unlikely just a few weeks earlier as the team toiled under a tired Neil who seemed to have lost confidence in himself and indeed in some of his players.
A new era begins and this summer will be big as McAvoy plans for next season.
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