Reading 1, Preston North End 0: Read Dave Seddon's big match verdict
Preston have been playing a football version of '˜The Chase' for the last few weeks and the big cash prize looks likely to elude them.
Being the chaser in games hasn’t suited them, thus their pursuit of the top six has run out of steam.
North End have generally put points on the board when they have scored the game’s first goal.
Concede first and in the main it has been a struggle for the men from Deepdale.
Going back to the end of January, the Lilywhites have taken the lead in six league games – getting a win or a draw out of them all.
Of the seven matches they fell behind in, only against Hull in February and at Bolton on Gentry Day did they turn it round to their advantage.
That is a recent snapshot and there have been times this season when points have been rescued from losing positions.
But the general picture is score first and PNE can be quite confident of winning or drawing.
That is probably the case for most teams, the first goal giving them a strong foothold in the contest.
Saturday’s narrow defeat at Reading saw North End on the chase from the 12th minute.
Falling behind to a soft goal from a set-piece, they had 78 minutes to find a way back.
Twice the woodwork was struck in their pursuit of level pegging but for a third match in a row they finished on the losing side.
This could well have been the mortal blow to their hopes of claiming a play-off place.
Back in 11th place, they are six points behind sixth spot with five clubs to clamber over if the season is to be extended beyond May 6.
With just five matches left it would need a Lazarus-style recovery and others to falter badly for that to happen.
Expectation levels had grown as PNE recovered well from their autumn wobble to move back into the play-off mix over winter and into the spring.
Hence the fan base having a deep sense of frustration at the slip since action resumed following the international break.
What has added to the frustration is that North End have fallen on the wrong side of those fine margins which Alex Neil speaks of regularly.
They have not been thrashed out of sight in any of the matches – the 4-1 scoreline on Good Friday at Sheffield Wednesday painted a rather distorted picture.
Derby and now Reading have beaten them by the one goal, as did Ipswich.
North End played as well as they have done in any game against Fulham, only for a late slip to cost them so dearly.
Those sides found the way to win, even if they took more than their displays merited.
Just at the wrong time of the campaign, PNE have lost that trait.
The defeat at the Madejski Stadium – perhaps the most middle-class ground with a four-star hotel and a jazz cafe in its complex – was to follow a slightly different path to the losses against Wednesday and Derby.
This time they got done by an early goal whereas over Easter, Neil’s men had bossed the first-half play only to let it slip after the break.
Mo Barrow’s far-post header proved enough to give the Royals their victory.
North End were off the pace in the first half although through Billy Bodin, Louis Moult and Tom Barkhuizen, they did go close.
Their whole approach was to improve in the second half, that enabling them to peg Reading back for long spells.
But save for Sean Maguire’s header which rattled the bar, they didn’t get close enough to threaten the home side’s lead.
Neil had made three changes to the side beaten by Derby in a bid to reignite their play-off push.
The keepers swapped again with Declan Rudd in for Chris Maxwell.
Moult replaced a jaded Maguire up front, with Bodin restored to the right flank.
I felt this was up there with Bodin’s best display since his January arrival.
The Wales international was Preston’s main outlet, the ball more often than not worked out to him.
Bodin had the game’s first chance, cutting on to his left foot and hitting a shot which Vito Mannone dived to parry.
It was his cross early in the second half which Maguire sent against the bar.
Reading’s winner was so annoyingly simple.
Ben Davies conceded a free-kick down Reading’s right channel, his trip on Jon Dadi Bodvarsson earning a caution.
Liam Kelly delivered the free-kick which Bodvarsson flicked on to the back post.
BARROW lost his marker Alan Browne and headed into the roof of the net.
Within two minutes PNE almost had an equaliser, Moult’s free-kick from the edge of the box striking the top of the post.
But in general it was the home side who looked the more dangerous – the North End defence stretched as much as it had been done for some time.
Neil made a double change at the break, Maguire taking Moult’s place and Tom Clarke replacing Davies.
I thought Moult could count himself slightly unlucky to get the hook.
While it was important to get Maguire on, it might have been worth a look at him in tandem with Moult.
Maguire almost equalised within five minutes of joining the fray, Bodin’s well flighted cross met by the Irishman who sent a header against the bar.
Bodin slashed at a cross from Greg Cunningham and saw it fly high over the bar, while a late low shot went inches past the far post.
If the play-offs are beyond reach – to reverse that would mean a big turn in fortune – it must not be the trigger for the season to fizzle out.
There are five games left with paying customers to please and attract for next season.
Neil will be looking for his side to fight, to carry a belief until catching the top-six is mathematically impossible.
He referenced some of his players being jaded, if so there are others in the squad who could inject some freshness.
It is Leeds next at home, a quick response is needed.