Dave Seddon's Preston North End verdict: Lilywhites have old heads on young shoulders
Steve McClaren was wide of the mark is his phraseology when describing Preston as a '˜wily, old, experienced team'.
Then again, you could see what the ex-England boss was trying to get at when mulling over his QPR side’s defeat to North End on the opening day.
The average age of PNE’s starting XI on Saturday was 24-and-a-half, so quite where the ‘wily, old’ bit came from, only McClaren can tell us.
Tom Clarke was the oldest at 30, Declan Rudd next in the list at 27.
In Ben Davies and Josh Harrop, the home side had two 22-year-olds playing, with Ben Pearson, Alan Browne and Callum Robinson all 23.
Young pups might have been a better description but there you go.
McClaren said: “We knew it was going to be a tough game against what I would call a wily, old, experienced Preston team who have been doing jobs on people and know how to win games, especially at home.
“They demonstrated that experience in winning the game.”
I’ll agree with McClaren to a point with his view that PNE have been ‘doing jobs’ on teams, but would argue at home it has not been a strength of theirs – more so on their travels. They are more streetwise in their approach, knowing when to speed things up and slow it down.
They got within touching distance of the play-offs last season with that approach and the hope is North End can go one better this time.
Alex Neil seemed a touched puzzled by his counterpart’s description of PNE when he was asked if that could be seen as a compliment.
The Preston manager said:“A wily Championship side? Okay.
“The fact is we beat them twice last year and we beat them again this time. That is fine with me.”
McClaren had all manner of vantage points from which to watch this game.
He started off watching from the old television gantry above the Invincibles Pavilion before making his way down to the technical area.
When the second half kicked off McClaren was still making his way from the tunnel and was stood level with the edge of the box for a good minute or so, giving out instructions.
It is one thing to stray out of the technical area but this was really taking things to the extreme!
What McClaren and a crowd of 13,418 witnessed was a 1-0 first-day PNE win for the second year running. It should have been more comfortable in terms of the chances created and time on the ball which Neil’s men had.
One goal was enough but it did take a fine save from Declan Rudd in the 88th minute to stop QPR taking a point back to West London with them.
Redundant in terms of shot-stopping for much of the afternoon, Rudd stretched up to tip a close-range shot from Idrissa Sylla over the bar.
It was heart-in-mouth stuff and had the ball hit the net rather than Rudd’s glove, PNE would have been kicking themselves.
Browne was their matchwinner, his header from a Josh Harrop free-kick five minutes after the interval enough to put three points on the board.
Interviewed last week in the build-up to the game, a modest Browne had said he didn’t see himself as the ‘big dog’ at Deepdale even if he had won two player of the year awards last season.
For him, this season was about proving himself again and trying to build on what he did last term.
A first-day goal, coupled with a strong display in the midfield, was a good way to start down that path.
It was done in front of Roy Keane who was making one of his regular Deepdale trips to monitor the Irish contingent.
Browne and Robinson were the two who made the starting line-up, with Daryl Horgan coming on later. Graham Burke’s debut will have to wait after he stayed on the bench, while the big Irish absentee was Sean Maguire.
It is that void which PNE are attempting to fill this week before Thursday’s deadline and beyond that in the loan window, which runs until the end of August.
Louis Moult was on striker duty in a 4-1-4-1 system against QPR and put in a good shift.
His lay-offs and hold-up play were very good, and he gave as good as he got against Toni Leistner and Joel Lynch, both visiting centre-halves you could put in the category of ‘unit’.
In terms of chances there was nothing which fell the way of Moult, which was probably more to do with a shortage of service into him in the box.
Moult’s strength is being on the end of things close in – that is where he will be judged.
What is not in any doubt is that he shouldn’t have to carry the tag of being Preston’s only out-and-out striker until the return of Maguire in a couple of months.
Robinson and Barkhuizen are options to play down the middle but not long-term.
When Moult’s race was run on Saturday, it was Robinson who played the last 13 minutes as a striker.
North End will need Moult and at least one other to give them the range of competition which they have in other areas of the squad.
It was important for PNE to get off to a winning start, not only to lift spirits following the injuries to Maguire and Billy Bodin, but to get points on the board early.
The longer you wait for a first win, pressure builds, as does anxiety.
Three points have given Neil’s men a foothold as they go into games against relegated pair Swansea and Stoke.
Against QPR, North End had the lion’s share of the ball in the first half – the visitors happy to sit off.
Barkhuizen and Robinson both had chances, the former sending a shot inches too high early on.
The winner came in the 50th minute, a foul on Andrew Hughes seeing PNE awarded a free-kick on the left.
Harrop delivered it deep to the far post, Browne rising to loop a header back across goal and into the net.
Robinson had a couple of chances to extend the lead but one goal was to prove enough for a winning start.