Tired conclusion to a season which promised so much for Preston
To use a well-worn sporting saying, the football season is a marathon and not a sprint.
Were we to apply the long distance race analogy to the campaign Preston finished in the Wolverhampton sunshine yesterday lunchtime, it would be something like this.
They started out at a snail’s pace, a bit like a fancy-dress runner who just wants to get round the course.
From September to early April, PNE were almost Mo Farrah-like, moving nicely through the gears on to the shoulder of the leading pack.
But in the final straight they seized-up alarmingly and almost had to be helped over the finish line – wobbly and cramped legs going from under them.
If Preston were a marathon runner, they’d be sat in an ice bath this morning reflecting on the good parts but asking too why their race legs were to desert them for the last six matches?
Defeat at Molineux was their fifth in that sequence, a solitary point gained among the losses against a relegated Rotherham side.
This from the team which had lost just five times in 32 Championship games from September 17 to April 4.
Mitigation could be offered to a certain degree by a tough looking April fixture list and injuries to defensive rocks Greg Cunningham and Tom Clarke.
The pair might have been replaced in body but not skill level – Clarke’s absence at the heart of the defence and as skipper has particularly hit them hard.
It is a shame that things have finished in the way they did after that strong middle section.
Post-match, North End boss Simon Grayson urged fans not to let the finale cloud what had gone on before.
Indeed it shouldn’t, in the sense that some of their play for five or six months was as good as anything seen from a Preston side for a fair number of years.
However, it is difficult not to dwell on this past few weeks, after all it is that which will be fresh in minds heading into the summer break.
Everyone enjoyed beating Brighton, Huddersfield, Norwich, QPR, Brentford, Bristol City and Reading.
The away day at Villa Park was one to remember with fondness, so too Aiden McGeady’s stoppage-time leveller at Blackburn.
But nagging away are the losses in April and May, the manner in which the season has drifted to a frustrating conclusion.
Grayson feels the squad simply ran out of steam and it would be hard to argue with that.
The defeat to Leeds left their play-off hopes teetering on the brink, the one which was to follow at Huddersfield and the manner which it occurred, ripping the heart out of them.
Clarke and Cunningham’s aforementioned injuries came on top and it has all been too much to handle.
As well as extra bodies, a bit of extra resilience will need to be on the summer shopping list in order to kick-on.
This was a second successive 11th place finish, both times PNE finishing on 62 points.
In the grand scheme of things, that is non-too shoddy when you look at some of the company they are keeping in the Championship.
Next season the division will be just as tough if some of the under-performers get their acts together but there is a base there from which to push on.
For a bit of balance when tutting at PNE for finishing this season as they did the last, have a quick look at Wolves.
Yesterday’s win moved them on to 58 points – the same as in 2015/16 – with them finishing a place lower in 15th.
In between they spent £27m, a world away from what Preston did.
Wolves were the better side in this game and you could not begrudge them victory.
Danny Batth’s header with only 61 seconds gone was to settle the contest, with PNE offering little in the way of an attacking threat.
In fact you had to press the fast-forward button to the 90th minute to find the best chance of an equaliser.
A swing of Daryl Horgan’s left boot produced that, one which young home keeper Harry Burgoyne tipped over the bar.
In between, a deflected Paul Gallagher shot into the gloves of Burgoyne was their only other effort on target.
The contest was not played at any great pace and too often North End chose the wrong option in their approach play.
The post-match talking point proved to be Jermaine Beckford’s appearance which turned out to be a farewell one.
He joined the action in the 66th minute in place of Jordan Hugill.
It has been a wretched last two seasons for Beckford, with a serious knee injury ruling him out for the majority of last term.
This time, a torn hamstring and then December’s two red cards combined to restrict his appearances.
Let us remember Becks for Wembley though, that superb hat-trick on an unforgettable afternoon two years ago.
Remember too, that treble was part of an 18-goal haul in half-a-season.
Without his goals, would Preston have got promoted?
Beckford learned a few days ago that he was going to be released.
As he stepped off the bench, there was a quick hug for Grayson on his way to stand with the fourth official.
Beckford was not to go out in a blaze of glory, a miscued shot – for which an offside flag spared his blushes – and the pass which led to Horgan’s chance as good as it got.
He had watched from the dug-out earlier as Wolves took the lead, an advantage which they comfortably held over the next 94 minutes.
Jordan Graham delivered a corner from the left over to the far post where BATTH got the better of Alex Baptiste to head home from six yards.
PNE’s starting 3-4-1-2 soon changed to 4-4-2 but it could not lift them, the first-half show flat to say the least.
A Wolves blitz in the early stages of the second period saw the hosts hit the post and force Chris Maxwell to twice save with his legs.
So the race is run, another season finished.