IN-DEPTH: '˜We want it more' - Desire could be key in Preston North End's play-off bid says Tom Barkhuizen
Tom Barkhuizen has come a long way in a short space of time.
The former Morecambe man, cast aside by Blackpool, knows just how much is at stake over the next eight games.
Having impressed in the Football League’s bottom tier with the Shrimps, the 24-year-old is now just over five weeks away from potentially finding himself in a shoot-out for a spot in the Premier League.
Alex Neil’s Preston North End are two points shy of the final two play-off spots as we enter the sharp end of the Championship campaign, a trip to Sheffield Wednesday next up on Good Friday.
Barkhuizen believes the desire in the Lilywhites dressing room could make the difference, especially given the path plenty of the squad have taken to this point.
“I think we want it a little bit more,” said the flying forward, who has started all but one of North End’s league games this season.
“There are so many of us that have come from lower leagues.
“It’s a bit surreal sometimes when you’ve come from so low that you’re doing as well as we are.
“You take a step back and think, ‘We’re doing something really good at the moment’.
“Hopefully our fans are proud of what we’re doing and hopefully we can give them something to shout about.
“We’ve fought so hard this season and we’re just on the edge of it.
“We know that it would be something really special if we could get there together.
“On a personal level I’ve played every game this season which for me is a massive thing because it’s not something I’ve done before.
“I’d like to think my performances of late will keep me in the team for the next game.
“If from my point of view I can be involved in a promotion season for Preston when I’ve played every game, that would be a massive personal achievement.”
If they are to make a major breakthrough in the closing weeks of the campaign, Barkhuizen believes they will largely have done it under the radar.
“When we’ve had our squad fit and available this season we’ve been one of the most consistent teams in the league,” he said.
“People from the outside probably haven’t seen us as a real threat for most of the season but now I think people are starting to notice we are a good team and we have got some players in our dressing room.
“We’ve shown that over the 38 games so far.
“No one expects us to do it though, and that gives us some freedom.
“Even now, 99 per cent of people look at us and think we aren’t going to do it.
“We’ve played with a freedom all season and that’s a testament to how the manager has treated us.
“Especially as a forward player he wants to see a bit of flair and allows us to try and do things that will get us three points.
“There’s no pressure on us. The shackles are off. We’re two points off the play-offs, so why not just go for it?
“We’ve got eight massive games coming up, hopefully we can make it 11 and get ourselves promoted.”
Doing that will be easier said than done though.
North End made a really strong start under Neil after he replaced Simon Grayson in the summer and have been consistent for large parts of the campaign.
But they have not been in the top six since the 3-2 defeat at champions-elect Wolves back on October 21 and are now looking to return at just the right time.
“Since we’ve come out of the top six we’ve always managed to get ourselves within two or three points and then that game has not gone for us,” said PNE’s No.29.
“It’s always been the one where we just haven’t been able to get over the line.
“We’ve put a few good performances together recently and hopefully we can make a real statement over the next few days and really get ourselves in and around it.
“We’re in a really good position. We’ve got some really tough games coming up but we’re full of confidence and hopefully we can get in there.”
The trip to Hillsborough marks the start of the run-in with all involved knowing a positive result will set up a crucial game with top-six rivals Derby County at Deepdale on Easter Monday.
Barkhuizen insists however PNE are not entering the Owls clash thinking it is win or bust, with plenty of twists and turns likely before May 6.
“Friday is obviously a massive game but it’s not the end of the world if things don’t go our way,” he said.
“We’ll go there and give 100 per cent and try and play the best we can and hopefully that’s enough for us.
“There are still 21 points available after and that’s a lot to play for.
“There’s always one team that goes on a really good run at the end of the season and who’s to say we can’t win the last five games, or something like that, and get in?
“It’s one of those where we’re taking it game by game and we’re not going to be too high if we win on Friday but we’re not going to get too low if we lose.” Recent results and their league position mean Neil’s men will head to the Steel City in good spirits.
There is also the fact the Lilywhites have picked up more points on the road than at home this season, 32 as opposed to 28.
“Teams sit off a bit more at Deepdale and don’t really go for it,” Barkhuizen said.
“They know it’s been such a fortress over the years, especially last season, and they probably think a point is a good result at our place.
“Away from home teams have to attack more in front of their own fans and that has probably played into our hands.
“It’s been a big contrast to last year when our away form wasn’t good at all and our home form bailed us out a little bit.
“We’ve got some games coming up at home though, where teams down the bottom need to win, so hopefully that plays into our hands and we can impose our style on them and get the three points we need.”