PNE left-back Greg Cunningham plans to end injury-hit season on a real high
There is certainly no shying away from the position Preston find themselves in.
With three games to go, Alex Neil’s side are in the top-six mix and ultimately within touching distance of being in a shootout for a place in the Premier League for the first time in their history.
The gap to the play-off places is just three points with their manager’s former club Norwich next up at Deepdale on Saturday.
It is now a case of sink or swim for the Lilywhites and Greg Cunningham insists North End, for so long the outsiders in this promotion race, are relishing the challenge ahead.
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“We’re excited,” said the left-back.
“We are back in the mixer after getting the results we deserved in the last couple of games.
“We’re three points off with three games to go and we’re working hard.
“The belief has always been there but it’s there even more now.
“For a lot of teams around mid-table their season is done.
“You ask anyone in that dressing room they will tell you what they want.
“It’s great as a player to be in the mix around this time and to be challenging for ultimately what is the big goal – a place in the Premier League.
“We’re close to it and we’ve got a bit of work to do but we’re working very hard.
“Our goal is to get in the play-offs and that’s achievable.”
Should they bridge that gap and seal a spot in the top six it will have seen PNE finish the season in some style.
The old cliché goes that being on such a roll would arguably make them the favourites to finish the job and reach the top flight.
“If we get in there no team in the play-offs will want to play us,” said Cunningham. “We fancy ourselves.
“We’ve given ourselves a fighting chance and we just want to make sure we get a good result on Saturday and then we can look at other fixtures and teams will drop points because they’re playing each other.
“First and foremost we’ve got to do our job this weekend and see how it goes elsewhere.”
Not so long ago it looked like the season would be done and dusted by now.
Three straight defeats after the international break against Sheffield Wednesday, Derby and Reading left hopes of a memorable end to the season hanging by a thread.
But Preston have bounced back impressively taking maximum points since then thanks to come-from-behind wins against Leeds and Queens Park Rangers.
“You do wonder whether you might miss out when you lose games at this time of year,” Cunningham said.
“You slip down the table a little bit but the frustrating part was that our performances were there, we just weren’t getting the results.
“If you’re beaten by a better team you hold your hands up and say, ‘It wasn’t our day’.
“But the manner in which we lost those games was very disappointing.
“It was a very frustrating time for us but we had to keep the faith. We’ve bounced back and showed great character.
“We weren’t just going to let the season fizzle out after all the hard work everyone has done throughout the season.
“We’ve got back-to-back wins and we’ve seen where it can take you.
“We’re three points off the play-offs now and it’s all systems go.”
Saturday’s opponents Norwich are one of those clubs seemingly with little to play for.
Neil and Declan Rudd’s former employers are 13th and are on an up-and-down run of form as the season draws to a close.
“The gaffer was there for a few years and Dec’s been there so we’ve been doing our homework,” said Cunningham.
“They’ve got some dangerous players and they’ve got nothing to lose, they’re going to go out there and express themselves.
“That can be dangerous at times. The pressure is off them because their season is ultimately done.
“It’s one of those where the manager might throw in some new players or try a new formation.
“Then it becomes a bit of an unknown.
“It will be a tricky encounter but we know what they’re about and we’ll prepare accordingly in training.”
North End head into the game with Sean Maguire as their main injury concern, the 10-goal striker battling a hamstring problem.
Neil has more players at his disposal than at any other time of the season however, something which could be key given what is at stake between now and the home clash with Burton Albion on the final day on May 6,
“Given the injuries we had earlier in the season we’ve shown the strength and depth we have in the squad,” said Cunningham.
“There have been a lot of injuries to some big players for us but boys have come in and done the job.
“It’s great that we’re almost back to a full strength squad for crunch time which is important. It just shows what we have in that dressing room.”
Cunningham is one of those who has been hit by a serious injury.
Named stand-in captain in place of Tom Clarke at the start of the campaign, the Irishman was then hit by a serious hamstring injury which kept him out until the end of December.
Other niggles have followed but Neil has unearthed a more than able deputy in first year professional Josh Earl who has made a seamless step up from academy football to the Championship.
“There’s competition for places all around the squad,” said Cunningham, who has made 18 appearances and scored one goal in his injury-hit campaign.
“With the way Josh Earl’s come into the squad and the job he’s done, people forget he’s only 19.
“It just shows the player that he is.
“We do have a lot of strength in this squad and there’s competition for places all over which is keeping everyone on their toes.
“It’s been a frustrating season personally but the boys have been fantastic.
“I’m delighted to be back to play whatever part I can as we look to try and finish the season on a high.”