Stoke City failed to deter Preston North End and Alex Neil from their promotion push this weekend after their supposed ‘illegal’ approach for our Scottish manager. Last season in a similar situation with West Bromwich Albion our immediate form declined. However, on Sunday, North End put in a great display at The Valley to come away with all 3 points and now lead the Championship table for the first time in 13 years.
We may only end up being top until Monday night but the fact we are there now just goes to show how far we have come under Alex Neil. It was a deserved victory with Paul Gallagher’s penalty proving to be enough to decide the game but in truth, we could and probably should have won by a few more.
Here are 5 things we learned from the Charlton Athletic game:
Alex Neil is Here to Stay
Plenty has been said already on this but it was interesting to hear Neil’s words before and after the game. Alongside the club’s statement which said any approach for Neil would be rejected the 38-year-old reaffirmed the fact that his sole priority is Preston North End. He has a job to finish here and he’s loved it so far.
Of course, given the fact the move to West Brom never materialised last season, it would be astounding to see him go to a side in the bottom 3 of the table. The players didn’t seem to have been affected by the speculation and hopefully, Stoke will move on now and do us a favour by taking a point or 3 off West Brom on Monday night.
We Can Adapt our Game for Any Opposition
It was a battling performance against Lee Bowyer’s side. We restricted them going forward with a solid defensive display and they are usually very strong at home so that says a lot in itself about our performance. Patrick Bauer won 11 aerial challenges second only to Jayden Stockley with 13. Stockley probably deserved a start based on his showing against Blackburn Rovers and whilst we do like to play free-flowing, attacking football we can also use his height to our benefit and the team certainly look comfortable doing that.
We managed the game very effectively after going a goal up, keeping the ball in their half and creating a few more chances. Like Neil said after the game there are much better squads in this league but our team knows how to adapt and to play in numerous different ways.
It’s Good to Have Ben Davies Back
His absence was certainly felt in the derby game last weekend against Blackburn. Having him back in the centre of defence brings a sense of calmness to the rest of the team. Sporting a Gareth Ainsworth like head bandage for the last part of the game didn’t affect him, heading and clearing away danger time and time again.
Bauer also looked a lot more comfortable as well with his usual defensive partner alongside him. In truth the whole defence had a great game, Darnell Fisher was the man of the match for me, and Rafferty put in another good shift. Our away form hasn’t been that great so far this season, today was only our second win away from Deepdale and the clean sheet will also be a huge confidence boost.
Alan Browne Needs a Goal
The Republic of Ireland international enjoyed arguably his best season at the club last time around, finishing second only to Callum Robinson in the goalscoring charts. He hasn’t found that form yet this season, partly down to Daniel Johnson playing superbly. Whilst Browne still played well against Charlton you can tell he is lacking a bit of confidence.
When going forward with the ball he seems to question what to do, which pass to play etc. Last season this all came naturally to him, he knew the pass to play and he was deadly in front of goal. Hopefully getting on the scoresheet may give him the boost he needs.
Although we’re not struggling as a team to find the back of the net, it would be nice for Browney to start contributing and having a similar impact to the one he did last season.
We are Promotion Contenders
Whenever you read or hear interviews with our players about our position none of them are ever surprised. Tom Barkhuizen said a few weeks back that the squad set targets internally for the season and that they’re currently on track. They know that we can match any other side in this division and are brimming with confidence.
A few things stood out from Sunday’s game in relation to this. Late on in the game when Charlton played a long ball forward Declan Rudd should have come out and claimed it but instead left Darnell Fisher to it and he had to concede a corner. Fisher let Dec know straight away that he should have come to claim it. He also did it against Rovers in the second half.
For me, this is great to see. It shows how much he cares and how much he wants the 3 points. After the game when receiving his man of the match award, Gallagher said it’s great to be top but we know we have the ability to be there and we’re there by right.
Furthermore, when Neil was questioned by David Prutton whether it’s realistic for us to be in the top 2 when the end of the season comes around, he said “well we’re top now so why wouldn’t it be?”. Exactly the right answer.
Preston always stay under the radar and many may think this is a false position but it certainly isn’t. We know that as fans and seemingly as a club and it seems that other people are now starting to sit up and take notice.