Dave Seddon's verdict on PNE's goalless draw with Norwich
If Preston North End's season was to be encapsulated in 90 minutes, this was it.
They had the better of the game and carved-out enough chances to win quite comfortably.
But missed opportunities cost them three points and North End had to settle for just the one against Norwich.
It has been an ongoing chapter through the season, chances going begging or the wrong choice being made in the final third.
Throw into the equation too that this was a case of more points being dropped on home turf – this was an eighth draw at Deepdale.
That PNE will go into their 45th Championship game of the campaign still in with a shout of the play-offs despite a lack of cutting edge, is really a double-edged sword.
To be within two points of the top six at such a late stage means they must be doing a lot right.
It is also damn frustrating to think that if North End had shown a touch more quality and ruthlessness up front, the battle for a play-off slot would have been in their own hands.
As it is winning the last two games might not be enough, with them needing a couple of results elsewhere to go in their favour.
Saturday’s stalemate left them in a strange old position in that they dropped a place but clawed back a point on Millwall in sixth.
Significantly, Brentford jumped above them and the Bees have the easier games, on paper at least, of the clubs in the chasing pack.
Fifth place has gone from a Preston perspective, all of the focus now being on sixth.
What is certain is that the clash with Sheffield United is win or bust.
Returning from Bramall Lane empty-handed would surely leave them out of it.
While goals evaded PNE against Norwich, there was no lack of determination and effort on the pitch.
They gave it their all on a sun soaked afternoon in a bid to pick holes in the yellow wall thrown up by the Canaries.
Holes were found but that is when their finishing came up short.
Paul Gallagher left the bar shaking in the first half with a free-kick which had beaten the defensive wall and keeper all ends-up.
In the second half, Josh Harrop, Billy Bodin and Sean Maguire all had chances to win the game.
Bodin and Maguire should have buried theirs, Harrop denied by a fine tackle from Jamal Lewis and later Angus Gunn’s save.
That conspired to deliver North End’s first goalless draw of 2018 – the previous one was at Barnsley on Boxing Day.
The crowd had done its best to inspire the team, the noise levels in the three home stands as high as it has been all season.
Attendances have been a talking point throughout the campaign and the 13,038 gate on Saturday had been bettered 11 times previously.
That said, it was the sixth best turn out of home fans this season.
The debate on the whys and wherefores of North End’s home attendances is for another day.
I do think though, that this team – one which is very much a work in progress – is deserving of being watched by more folk.
How bigger numbers can be persuaded through the turnstiles is a topic which has to be thought about long and hard.
Norwich’s visit pitted Alex Neil against the club he led to promotion three years ago.
To be in with a chance of doing similar with Preston this time, Neil needed a win from this one.
Three wins from their final three games would almost have made certain of a top-six finish.
Whether winning their last two on the back of this draw will suffice, remains to be seen.
Neil’s team selection was to differ only slightly from the side which had started the win at QPR – Gallagher replacing Daniel Johnson.
Maguire was on the bench after a tight hamstring had kept him at home the week before.
He wasn’t risked from the start, instead introduced eight minutes into the second half in a bid to find a winner.
Callum Robinson was again tasked with leading the attack but he got little change from the Canaries’ defence until he moved to the wing when Maguire arrived.
Robinson had a sniff early on when Alan Browne’s pass cut open the visitors and let Robinson through on goal.
But he held back slightly as Gunn dashed to the edge of the box and gathered – had he kept going, it might have put the keeper in trouble.
North End pressed well early on, hustling Norwich out of possession a few times with Ben Pearson and Browne in particular doing that well.
The closest they were to come to scoring all afternoon was with Gallagher’s free-kick in the 29th minute.
Bodin was felled a couple of yards outside the box by the lumbering Grant Hanley.
Gallagher touched the free-kick to Bodin, took the return pass, and whipped a shot over the bar and against the underside of the bar.
In a season of fine margins being a topic of conversation, we were talking a matter of inches there.
Paul Huntington’s services were lost at half-time because of a hamstring injury.
Ben Davies replaced him and it was not long before Neil chose to make a further two changes to try and burst open the game.
Harrop and Maguire came on for Gallagher and a weary Tom Barkhuizen who looks like a long season has caught up with him.
The two subs led a Preston counter-attack which saw Maguire play in Harrop in the box, Lewis sliding across with an inch-perfect tackle.
After Harrop had forced a diving save out of Gunn, two chances were squandered in the space of two minutes.
Both came from Robinson crosses, Bodin’s curler from 12 yards going agonisingly the wrong side of the post when he really should have scored.
From closer in, Maguire put a header over the bar with just the keeper to beat.
The PNE ‘believe bus’ has dropped down a gear or two but rumbles on across the Pennines this weekend – it’s Bramall Lane or bust now.