After a cracking result knocking Norwich City off the top of the league and a 0-0 draw against Nottingham Forest, extending our unbeaten run to 7 games, some Preston fans are now starting to wonder… Could we?
There was plenty of hope heading into this season following a better than expected first season under Alex Neil that saw us finish in 7th, just two points behind Derby County. If only Chris Maxwell had kept that Tom Lawrence freekick out, who knows where we may have ended up? Alas, as it was, Derby progressed to the play-offs but lost to Fulham over two legs who eventually went up to the Premier League beating Aston Villa in the final.
The Injury Curse
Pre-season was filled with plenty of positivity. In fact, for the first time in a while, it felt like one of the most optimistic pre-seasons as a North End fan. There was talk of us going out and spending a decent amount of money on what were apparently the manager’s top targets such as Keiffer Moore from Barnsley and most fans were positive that if we could keep hold of the majority of the squad heading into the new season then we could certainly mount a challenge for the play-offs.
I’m sure many of you have heard that things happen quickly in football and that was the case for North End. In the space of a few days, we lost two key attackers in Billy Bodin and Sean Maguire who ruptured an ACL and pulled a hamstring respectively.
Sean Maguire did his hamstring in the pre-season game against Oldham Athletic where he came off the pitch after 24 minutes of the first half, not a good sign considering his history with hamstring injuries. When Alex Neil’s first pre-match press conference came around before the opening game of the season, he delivered the news that scans showed the injury to Maguire was worse than first feared and Sean would be out for at least a couple of months. To add to that, he also said that Billy Bodin would be out for pretty much the majority of the season after damaging his ACL in training.
Just like that, two integral parts of the way North End were working toward playing, were out.
Any Chance of a Win?
After the opening day victory against QPR, we couldn’t buy a win for love nor money and went on an awful run of 10 games without a win, drawing 3 and losing 7 and the manager came in for some stick from sections of the North End faithful. But, it was the last draw in that run of games away at Aston Villa that we seemed to turn the corner.
An end-to-end game that finished 3-3 with Preston coming from 2-0 down at half-time to lead 2-3 then conceding in the 90th minute for what would be, in the scheme of things, a good point away from home all things considered. Only, after conceding a goal, we also conceded a penalty, but Chris Maxwell was equal to it and we managed to come back to Preston with a point in the bag.
From there, we went 8 games unbeaten, that run coming to an end with a shocking performance and a 3-0 defeat away at Birmingham City. Since that game, we’ve been on some run of form having played 13 games winning 6, drawing 4 and losing 3. A look at the table from October 1st has us in 4th place with a record of 23 games played, 10 wins, 9 draws and 4 defeats.
It’s also no coincidence that the 4 defeats came without Ben Pearson in the side. Of the 24 league games he’s been involved in for North End this season, he’s only been on the losing side five times and one of those was the game in which he got sent off against Sheffield Wednesday. I think it’s safe to say that even though people will point to our injury record and rightly so, it’s our run of 9 games without a win at the start of the season that has really cost us so far this season.
In the three seasons that we’ve been back at this level, we’ve finished 11th on 62 points in the 2015/16 season, 11th on 62 points (again!) in the 2016/17 season and 7th on 73 points last season, just missing out on the play-offs after a push toward the top 6. After the Forest game on Saturday, we have 13 games left and we’re currently 9 points behind Bristol City who occupy 6th place with 53 points on the board. Those sides that have finished 6th in the 15/16, 16/17 and 17/18 seasons finished with an average of 74 points and in order for us to reach that number this season, we’d need to average just over 2.3 points per game.
Quite an ask but, not impossible. In fact, a manager who has managed a run similar to this is Alex Neil himself.
When Neil joined Norwich City from Hamilton Academical in January 2015 he took them up to the Premier League via the play-offs, beating local rivals Ipswich 4-2 over two legs then going on to beat Middlesbrough 2-0 in the play-off final at Wembley. He took the Canaries on a run averaging 2.2 points per game over 14 games when he took charge and this saw them finish third. Now, Norwich were 7th and only 3 points off the top 6 when the Scot took charge but to average that number of points over 14 games is good going.
We’re starting to look more settled with the new signings (well, Brad Potts and Jayden Stockley) bedding in well and players returning from injury and seeming able to stay fit, plus Callum Robinson and Louis Moult still to come back from hamstring injuries I don’t see any reason why Alex Neil can’t muster up a similar run of form to that which he managed at Norwich. Over the remaining 13 games, in order to be up and around the points total that may sneak us into 6th place, we’d have to win at least 10 of the 13 games and hope other teams around us drop points.
Provided we can achieve that sort of form, the other thing that could help us out is that a lot of teams that are still in with a shout of the play-offs are playing one another and Sheffield United, Bristol City, Birmingham City and Leeds United still have to come to Deepdale so there’s a chance that a gap will start to open up as teams start to take points off one another.
As far as my own thoughts go, I think the play-offs may be a bridge too far this season, the poor start and the injuries I fear have cost us. I just think it’s too big of an ask for other teams to drop points that are also in the hunt.
I don’t see any reason why we can’t continue our good run of form though because there’s one thing that this group of lads Alex Neil has put together will always give you and that’s energy and 100% effort, all over the pitch and as a North End fan, as I’m sure is the same with the vast majority of fans of other clubs, that’s all you want to see from your team. If they leave everything out on the pitch at the end of the 90 minutes and the result hasn’t gone your way then sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and say it’s not our day.