Five ups and three downs from Preston North End's season - Blackburn and Leeds United to QPR and Watford

PNE have 56 points from their 37 Championship matches
PNE celebratePNE celebrate
PNE celebrate

Preston North End have certainly had their highs and lows this season, but with nine games left to play the Lilywhites find themselves in a promising position. Ryan Lowe's side are ninth in the table and looking to break into the top six.

Here are our ups and downs from the season to date...


Blistering start

It was hard to know what exactly to expect, or hope for, heading into the season. But, Preston North End started like a house on fire - with Will Keane's late leveller on the opening day setting a platform for six consecutive wins. That equaliser of Ashton Gate looked an increasingly important moment, in a game PNE deserved to take something from. Who knows how North End would've responded to a narrow, frustrating defeat on match day one? The most impressive thing about the Lilywhites' strong start was the circumstances in which it was made.

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Manager Ryan Lowe had a really thin squad at the time, with several youngsters having played a central role in pre-season games. But, players stepped up to the plate and perhaps got hopes too high. Those early points, though, weren't half priceless. Duane Holmes was excellent - scoring against Swansea and Plymouth - while Milutin Osmajic and Liam Millar opened their accounts for Preston. The stand out day has to be Stoke City away, though. North End sent the away end absolutely wild, in the September sunshine, with Will Keane at the double.

Ewood Park ecstasy

This was a brilliant derby - and of course we'd say that, with Preston North End winning in the last minute. But, the clash at Ewood Park was a fantastic match; any neutrals who tuned in via Sky Sports won't have been disappointed. Inside the ground, it was set up perfectly - with a packed out crowd, floodlights on, Blackburn Rovers in blue and white and PNE in yellow. The opening goal from Alan Browne, who gave it some to the home faithful, was utterly emphatic. Touch and bang.

Rovers gave Preston a great game on the night and will have probably felt deserving of a draw, at least. But, North End were so strong in those final 10 minutes, experience told and they found a way through - with Liam Lindsay hurling himself at the ball from Ben Whiteman's teasing cross and converting. The celebrations in the away end were a sight to behold. And as far as individual moments under Ryan Lowe go, that is right up there and will take some beating.

Boxing Day belter

On the back of a hammering at home - and last gasp defeat on the road - amid huge fan pressure too - Leeds United felt pretty alarming next opponents for PNE, on Boxing Day. But, football often finds a way to surprise you and North End picked up a massive three points at Deepdale. The strike to seal the victory was pinpoint, pure and powerful - sent surging into the top right corner, by Liam Millar, in 89th minute. In front of the Alan Kelly Town End, a moment to definitely savour. Preston had been pegged back, from the penalty spot, after Browne had opened the scoring with a wonderful header. There was the drama involved in Illan Meslier's straight red card, too. Boxing Day is always a big date in the football diary and beating Leeds, that late, will make 2023's one to cherish - for many years to come.

Redemption for Robbie

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The last couple of months must've been huge for Robbie Brady's confidence - even as a vastly experienced player. The Irishman was having a tough time of it; PNE's captain labelled him the latest 'scapegoat' within the squad. Brady is an honest pro and would be the first to criticise some of his own performances. But, you would never have accused him of lacking commitment and the Irishman has never had a pop at supporters - when speaking in the media. And the tide has turned for him in the last couple of weeks, for sure.

Brady played well at Plymouth Argyle and his display at home to Middlesbrough, back in mid-February, was a big step forward. A few days after that, the number 11 curled home a delightful first goal in Preston colours. And he didn't half enjoy it, right in front of the Blackburn Rovers away end - which had been giving Brady his fair share of stick. It was hard not to be anything other than pleased for the Irishman in that moment. The postage stamp strike got PNE back into the Lancashire derby, which they took a valuable point from in the end.

The return of Riis

North End's manager made the point of Riis being 'out of sight, out of mind' during the team's testing run of results. And, perhaps the quality of player PNE were missing had been somewhat under-appreciated. Since Riis has returned to action, after that horrific injury, he has looked an utter powerhouse. The off-field work of North End's number 19 has been praised by his team mates, as well as Lowe. It must've been a challenging 11+ months, mentally as much as physically, for a player who had never really suffered a serious injury. Riis has been reaping the rewards in recent weeks, though. The Dane was just too hot for Coventry City to handle, in that statement 3-0 away win. His presence on the pitch looks to have given everyone at the club a lift, too, which is credit to Riis himself. If Preston are going to make it an exciting end to the season, you can bet their number 19 will be at the absolute heart of it.


A few pastings along the way

Nobody expected Preston to go the entire season unbeaten, but their ninth match of the campaign wasn't half a brutal reality check. West Brom rocked up at Deepdale and destroyed PNE - who were so far off the pace on the day - four-nil. The Albion clash was the first in a tough, three game week which North End would take zero points from. Preston steadied, slightly, over the next few matches - playing particularly well in the home draw with Southampton.

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But, a midweek trip to Middlesbrough in late November would yield another 4-0 loss. PNE will do well to perform as poorly as they did that night. Pressure started to ramp up after that one, with the number of times Lowe's Preston had conceded three or four not making for great reading. And a 1-5 hammering at home to Watford, in mid-December, didn't improve it. There's no getting away from just how awful that second half was, but the full time result was one nobody would've envisaged at half time - when North End went in with it one apiece.

Fierce frustration

We've mentioned the win over Leeds at home - and North End won convincingly at Huddersfield Town too - but December was a difficult month; not a nice time whatsoever. The consensus seemed to be that the reign of Ryan had ran its course. But, PNE made their stance as a club clear, just before Christmas Day: we are sticking with our manager. After the aforementioned loss to Middlesbrough, QPR ran out 2-0 winners in Lancashire; Deepdale had scarcely been so flat. The feeling was quite similar, when Sheffield Wednesday won 1-0 towards the end of the month. January improvement did not come instantly, with a really drab defeat at Sunderland and the cup tie at Chelsea coming before the win over Bristol City - a vital result, as touched on this week.

Cruel moments

It surely cannot get crueller than PNE's loss to Cardiff City, in November. A, quite frankly, horrible 96th minute equaliser which Karlan Grant knew nothing about - followed by a 99th minute winner, which left the home players, staff and fans totally speechless. Preston had gone ahead in the 48th minute, through Osmajic, but Brady saw red four minutes later. Lowe's men looked to have held out for three, hard earned points, but had to accept taking zero come full time.

You are unlikely to see a defeat of that manner for some time. Preston have had more bitter pills to swallow this season. Southampton nicked a point, in the 96th minute, at Deepdale; Swansea stole all three in the 95th at their place. Joel Piroe's 94th minute penalty was a harsh blow for PNE at Elland Road, while Stoke City scored the scruffiest of winners, in the 87th minute at Deepdale. When a football season starts, you know there are going to be moments which leave you feeling sick. North End will hope the last sucker-punch has been suffered, having had their fair share.

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