Dave Seddon's PNE verdict: '˜Baluga' Browne's the toast of the town!
Baluga bar in Preston city centre need not worry about spending another penny on advertising '“ Alan Browne and the PNE supporters have seen to that.
Top of the fans’ hit parade of terrace tunes this season has been the song about the Irish midfielder’s occasional liking for a visit to the Church Street hostelry.
It is a song which has been belted out with gusto from London to Cardiff, the latest airing being in Sheffield on Saturday as North End kept their play-off dream alive.
Browne struck his ninth goal of the season in the Steel City to deliver victory against the Blades.
League points in the red-and-white half of Sheffield have traditionally been hard to come by for PNE.
This was only their third league win at Bramall Lane since 1978 – a fourth came in the FA Cup in 2015.
It enabled them to do the double over United for the first time since the 1896/97 season, a mere 121 years ago.
Browne mopped up when a shot from Josh Harrop was too hot for home goalkeeper Jamal Blackman to handle.
He was first to the rebound, sliding in to sweep it into the net and spark wild scenes in the away end in front of him.
A 1,610-strong travelling support had travelled to South Yorkshire more in hope than expectation about North End’s continued involvement in the race for the top six.
Ahead of kick-off, they had looked to be among the rank outsiders in the chasing pack.
By evening time, once the late kick-off at Middlesbrough had finished, Alex Neil’s men were well and truly in it.
It is now between them and Derby County for sixth place, the Rams holding a two-point advantage.
Both have home matches against relegation-threatened sides on Sunday – PNE host Burton and Derby entertain Barnsley.
A Preston win and a loss for Derby and it is play-off time, which would very much be against the odds.
PNE have hardly rated a mention in the chase, staying under the radar.
Losing three games on the bounce saw many write them off and with good reason.
But 10 points taken from the last 12 on offer has breathed life into their push.
It would be a hard sell to claim that this win was achieved with panache and flowing football – it wasn’t.
Rather, it was a case of PNE grinding out a result, baring their teeth and also running the clock down. They won few friends over the Pennines, frustrating the home legions in their bid to hold on to three precious points given to them by Browne.
As North End’s players left the pitch after clapping the away fans, the stadium’s announcer said, ‘See you next season’.
Clearly, the man with the microphone doesn’t rate their chances of climbing out of the division.
To redress the balance, he had described the Preston supporters as a, ‘Credit to your club’ earlier in the afternoon when they joined in the round of applause in memory of those Blades fans who had passed away during the course of the season.
There were two ways this game could have gone with the fact only a win was good enough for both sides to keep their hopes of the top six alive.
Either it was going to be an end-to-end affair with the sides chucking the kitchen sink and dishwasher at one another. Or it would be a cagey clash with the size of the occasion getting the upper hand.
It was more the latter, the game something of a battle rather than a display of quality.
Preston’s defensive skills had to be admired on the day, though.
They put up a green wall, even going five at the back for the final half-hour to protect the lead.
While the hosts swarmed forward in search of parity, Declan Rudd was stretched just once in terms of making a save in the closing stages of the contest – tipping over a shot from David Brooks.
Aside from that, the lead was held by them cutting out crosses, putting in blocks, holding a disciplined line.
Earlier in the game with the scoreline blank, left-back Greg Cunningham helped keep it that way by throwing himself in the way of a John Fleck howitzer – deflecting it behind with his head.
Browne was later to thank his fellow countryman for that block, Fleck the man he was supposed to be marking.
North End’s starting XI showed that the intention had not been to shut up shop.
For the first time Neil went with a midfield diamond to support a front two.
Ben Pearson played the deep role, with Browne and Daniel Johnson further up.
At the forward point of it was Harrop, making his first start since January 20.
Ahead of him were front duo Sean Maguire and Callum Robinson.
The opening stages offered promise with PNE breaking well and moving the ball up the pitch. But as the first half went on, they got put on the back foot as United got a grip on the proceedings.
It prompted a change in system back to a 4-2-3-1 and during the second half they shifted to a 3-5-2, which was more 5-3-2 as time went on.
Rudd was on the right place to block a Leon Clarke effort with his chest at the near post in the 35th minute, Cunningham’s heroics coming just before the break when he somehow deflected Fleck’s drive over the bar.
The winner came in the 57th minute, the ball worked down the left and then in-field to Harrop, who tried his luck with a shot from 25 yards.
Blackman dived to his left to parry, BROWNE faster to react and find the net.
For a player who didn’t score at all last season to be on nine goals for this campaign is quite a turnaround.
The former Cork man has developed as a footballer over the last nine months, not just with his goals but also on the strength front – he takes some knocking off the ball.
Another goal on Sunday and the whole of Baluga will be toasting their glasses to him.
Browne and his Preston team-mates have taken it down to the wire, now they deserve the city’s support for one last push.