Sheffield Wednesday visit Deepdale on Saturday hoping to keep their slim play-off hopes alive. With four points and three teams separating the Owls from a place in the top six, they almost certainly need to win their two remaining fixtures while hoping for help from elsewhere to complete a surprise late entry.
North End’s own ambitions for contention were ended mathematically with last week’s defeat at Wigan, confirming what a disastrous early April had all but ensured. Nevertheless, Alex Neil’s men go into the weekend with the intention of finishing the campaign strongly and will be looking for a result to stop the season fizzling out.
“We want to finish on a real positive and hopefully we can go and give a good performance.” says the Gaffer, speaking to the official club website, alluding to this being the final home game of the season. Usually following the final home game is the procession of players around the pitch, a final opportunity for fans to show their appreciation for the players’ efforts, and manager and players alike will want to give fans at least one more reason to be cheerful come the end of the 90 minutes.
Ben Pearson is back in contention for the weekend following his most recent ban, although some might say it would be better he sits out the final two games of the year. The midfielder sits on 14 yellow cards and would face a four-match suspension should he pick another caution up in the final two games, which would extend into the early stages of next campaign.
Missing out however will be Ryan Ledson, whose clumsily high and highly clumsy challenge at the DW Stadium last weekend saw him pick up his own four-game suspension.
Suspensions are something that Pearson and Ledson have seemingly taken turns with this season. One of Pearson’s came after the previous meeting with Saturday’s opponents in fact. The number 4 was sent off midway through the first half and left us in the lurch somewhat as Wednesday ran out 1-0 winners on the day.
Recent form has dipped, shall we say? With the injuries just beginning to mount up again, the end of the season may have come at not too bad a time for North End, with results sadly starting to mirror those of the opening months.
Five defeats in six matches now blot the end-of-season copybook for North End and management, players and fans alike will be hoping that the victory over Ipswich doesn’t turn out to be a solitary beacon in an otherwise dark and dreary end to the season.
Sheffield Wednesday of late have had the very definition of a “mixed bag”. In comparison with our five losses in six, they have picked up two losses, two draws and two victories, most recently against fellow play-off contenders Bristol City.
Steve Bruce’s side have picked up just two away wins in 2019 to date and will be hoping for a third as they look hopefully towards a late surge into the playoffs. To do so, they will need to show the sort of consistency that has cost them all season long by winning three games in a row, something they have done just once, on their 4th, 5th and 6th matchdays.
Recent matches have presented a main potential danger of Sheffield Wednesday as clear as day. They seem to be having their own private ‘Goal of the Season’ competition at the moment. First, Fernando Forestieri hammered in a frankly astounding strike at Carrow Road from more than 30 yards out, laying down the gauntlet.
The gauntlet was picked up just three days later by Barry Bannan who himself scored a superb effort from distance against Bristol City. We may have to hope Declan Rudd is well and truly on his toes for this one.
Wednesday are also nigh-on unplayable in the air. At the heart of their defence they have Tom Lees and Michael Hector, who between them boast some of the most consistently high figures for aerial challenges won in the Championship this campaign.
Tom Lees, over the past four games, has won 83.25% of his aerial challenges. An impressive statistic, one that is immediately beaten by his partner, Michael Hector’s, 86.75%. Michael Hector, incidentally, was the goalscorer in North End’s 1-0 defeat at Hillsborough earlier this season. Yes, it was with his head.
Like most football fans I started following my club because my dad did. I was first taken to Hillsborough more years ago than I care to remember and it has been in my blood ever since, it’s the hope that keeps you going, but also does you in!
What’s the fanzine all about? Paul Taylor and I co-edit the War of the Monster Trucks fanzine. WOTMT was created by Matt Cooper. War of the Monster Trucks was after the incident in the 1991 TV coverage of the League Cup final when we beat Man Utd 1-0. After the game, our own ITV region (YTV) cut short broadcasting the post-match celebrations – the only ITV region to do so, and instead broadcast an American import called War of the Monster Trucks. They never have been forgiven and they never will be. After Matt Cooper’s time, 4/5 of us ran the paper fanzine till 2005 and Paul Taylor and I have run it online since then. Although, we have produced 2 paper fanzines this season with some success and raised money for charities in the process. The paper fanzines were called ‘All Wednesday’ and were inspired by the film of the same name which was made by Matt Exton to celebrate our 150th anniversary as a club.
The three highs and three lows of my time following Wednesday…
1. 1990/91 when we won promotion from what is now the Championship and won the League Cup in one season
2. Achieving promotion from League One in 2012, when we chased down our city neighbours to go up automatically and we pushed them into the play-offs, which they lost.
3. League One play-off final in 2005 in Cardiff when we beat Hartlepool with 45,000 Wednesdayites there on a beautiful sunny day.
1. The Hillsborough Disaster. I wasn’t there but I was close enough to the stadium to notice the silence apart from all the sirens. A terrible day.
2. Relegation from the top league in 1990 on the very last day having looked safe 3 weeks before the end.
3. The 1993 FA Cup final replay when we were beaten by Arsenal in extra-time with the last kick of the game.
I always hate ‘bigging’ our players up as it always seems like pride waiting for a fall. However, Barry Bannan is capable of bossing a game, Adam Reach has pace and can score screamers, Rolando Aarons (if fit) has pace and a trick or two, Steven Fletcher is looking good up front and has probably been our most consistent player this season. Fernando Forestieri looks like he’s getting back to his best after a difficult time with injury. And the mercurial Lucas Joao can be brilliant.
Hopefully, in the game, you will see discipline, organisation, shape, commitment and purpose, and these will be allied to some guile, pace and trickery going forward. If they are on their game we have a few players who can cause problems for most teams at this level. On the balance of the game, we should have beaten Villa at home recently and we were a minute away from winning at Norwich, so we can be very good. But, like many Championship teams, we have our off days too – we’ve had a few too many of those at Deepdale in recent visits.
The Steve Bruce effect. After Jos Luhukay we needed a big character who understood Championship football. He is both, in spades. We needed someone to exert some authority over the playing side. He has got the team organised, he has lifted confidence levels on and off the pitch, and he has delivered a more competitive team. There is an enormous challenge ahead with FFP issues to negotiate but he has brought stability and engagement back to the club when both looked to have been eroded significantly early in the year. From having one of the worst defences in the Championship under Luhukay we now have one of the best. If the season had started when Steve Bruce came in we would now be 4th in the table.
We have a very, very outside chance of a play-off spot which will be very tough to achieve. I hope we can at least finish in the top ten and have a positive end to the season after a very difficult first half of 18/19. A major squad re-structuring is coming in the summer with the need to reduce our wage budget, reduce the age of the squad and with ten players out of contract – so some positive energy going into that would be good.
In terms of the game, many years of watching Wednesday have taught me never to make predictions about results but I hope we give you a better game that we have at Deepdale in recent seasons. As for the team, I’ll go for something like this: Westwood; Iorfa, Lees, Hector, Palmer; Matias, Bannan, Pelupessey, Boyd; Fletcher and Forestieri or Hooper.
The toll of this season’s exertions really seems to have caught up with the boys in recent weeks. We looked bright, largely unplayable even, against an Ipswich side who were already relegated with nothing to play for, but in every other game for the last month or so we’ve just not been quite at it.
As I mentioned in the introduction, the season does seem to be fizzling out a little, as things that burn the brightest in the middle often tend to. This being said, Wednesday are an inconsistent side and do struggle on the road.
With this in mind, and the fact the lads will be giving it one final push to give the home fans a little something to cheer on our last competitive visit to Deepdale until August, I’m going to predict a score draw. 1-1 or 2-2, or perhaps even a narrow North End victory to round the home season out.
Whatever happens, if you’re attending I hope you’ll stay behind at the end of the game to give the boys a well-deserved round of applause. The season may have started and finished with waves of indignity, but it’s important to remember that these moments were born more of bad luck on and off the pitch than mere underperformance and that when they truly had the chance to show what they can do, the lads really treated us to a massively entertaining season.