A deflated and depleted North End side travelled to the Hawthorns for the first time in 9 years on Saturday, for what was decided as the Gentry Day match. With all of the speculation surrounding Alex Neil’s future before the game, with certain quarters believing it was all but a done deal for the Scot to move to the Baggies, there was certainly a strange feeling in the Black Country. What we know now, of course, is that Neil will be staying with North End, seemingly backed by an awoken owner who has handed him a 3 year deal on improved terms and no doubt assurances over budgets, certain players and such like. Brilliant news indeed for PNE, if not surprising, as we look to build on what has been another largely promising season.
The 90 minutes of football itself yesterday almost pales into insignificance now, but PNE lined up in a 4-1-4-1 shape, with the usual back 4, Ledson in for the suspended Pearson, and Gallagher returning to the side in the false left position, with Stockley coming in for Maguire up front. Ledson sat fairly deep for the Lilywhites with Browne and Johnson higher, with Gallagher tucking into central areas and augmenting the midfield, with the game plan seemingly to find the isolated Nmecha on the wide right.
The Baggies lined up in a 3-5-2 shape, something they’ve toyed with all season, with the deadly duo Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez up front, undoubtedly the most potent front 2 in the league for me. Behind them was an experienced midfield trio of Jake Livermore, Stefan Johnansen and Chris Brunt, flanked by Mason Holgate and Kieran Gibbs at wing back. A colossus back 3 of Ahmed Hegazi, Craig Dawson and Kyle Bartley sat in front of former PNE loanee and local lad Sam Johnstone, who received his usual warm reception from the Preston faithful.
With a strange atmosphere in the stadium, with songs about Alex Neil from both sets of fans, the game started fairly mundanely with neither side dominating the ball, it was very much a midfield battle early on and lots of long balls from end to end, as North End repeatedly looked to find Stockley. One interesting thing of note was that Jordan Storey, the more aerially adept of the two centre backs, had been tasked with man-marking Rodriguez from long ball situations, and as a result Storey was often dragged to the left-hand side of the defence where Rodriguez tended to drift, resulting in Davies ending in the RCB area – more on that later.
After a quiet spell in the game, shortly after PNE’s first shot on target through Davies, West Brom’s goal came in the form of Dwight Gayle, in what was a goal of Premier League quality. Chris Brunt played a simple one-two in midfield, resulting in non-pressure on the ball, which then triggered Gayle to spin off Ben Davies onto his blindside, and Brunt delivered an inch-perfect goal for Gayle to volley home sweetly. In a matter of seconds, and from a non-threatening area of the pitch, North End’s solid defence had been breached. Davies couldn’t have done much, the defender having to watch both man and ball, and there are arguments that Earl could’ve tucked in to protect him, but it was simply a stunning goal, with razor-sharp movement.
North End’s heads dropped instantly, with the players looking abject at the whole circus surrounding the game, with Baggies fans chanting about Alex Neil, singing “Alex give us a wave”, it certainly was bizarre. WBA’s second goal came shortly later, in a passage of play that sums up Josh Earl, for me. The young left-back initially dealt with a long ball well, regaining possession off of Baggies wing back Mason Holgate. Earl then moved infield, with one of his usual heavy touches, and inexplicably played a blind pass right into the middle of the pitch, which West Brom took control of. Ryan Ledson made an excellent recovery tackle in his own box but Gayle was there to tuck away his second, and the game seemed gone for North End. 2 chances, 2 goals for Gayle and West Brom, highlighting the gulf in class between the sides.
Paul Gallagher had to be withdrawn at 2-0 after a horrendous challenge from Holgate, leaving the 34-year-old unable to walk properly, replaced by Callum Robinson. It was another injury for North End and summed up the story of the last few weeks, really. Not long after the substitute, it was 3-0. A long ball that Storey challenged Rodgriguez on in the left centre back position, was lost, and with Davies shuffled to the right, and Storey in no man’s land after losing the aerial duel, a decisive pass was played into the inside left channel for Jay Rod to finish clinically. A clear tactical manoeuvre from Neil that failed, but it was devastatingly clinical from the Baggies, who looked bang up for the game, seemingly wanting to impress Alex Neil. 3-0 at half time and North End went down the tunnel to a few boos from sections of the North End crowd.
The second half started brightly for PNE, Maguire introduced for the ineffective Stockley, and Robinson looking more and more like the player who dazzled before his injury, he was getting into pockets and playing clever passes, with more and more sharpness. A few chances came PNE’s way, Alan Browne creating space to see a goal bound shot blocked, and Robinson inches away from a clever cross-shot from Nmecha, but it was all a bit too late. After a period of good play from the Lilywhites, WBA got a 4th from a set piece, something that we have struggled with all season. Dawson made the first contact with the Ball and after a few ricochets, Gayle bundled it over the line for his hat trick.
A brilliantly clinical player at this level, but it was too easy for him. By now the players had pretty much downed tools, and tensions were high in the away end with Alex Neil being called every name under the sun, and the game fizzled out. Robinson and Nmecha kept going to their credit, and combined for a late consolation for Robinson’s 11th goal of the season, and Nmecha’s 7th assist. It was typical Callum Robinson play, picking up the ball in a narrow position, feeding Nmecha wide and drifting into a dangerous central area to poke home through a crowd of players. Josh Ginnelly picked the ball out of the net, a promising cameo for the former Walsall man, who looks sharp and fast off the mark, showing a willingness to run off the ball and break lines.
All in all it was a bizarre day, made even stranger by Neil’s post-match comments, and as I say, tensions were running high and too much alcohol had been consumed by a small minority, who had become aggressive about the whole situation, on what was meant to be a day not about the football, but about remembering those who we had lost this year. We know now that Neil stays, and seemingly will be backed in summer, but who knows to what extent. The game showed us that had he taken the role at the Hawthorns, he would’ve inherited a side full of experience and quality, and he would’ve had a good shot at the play-offs. As it is, he has unfinished business at Deepdale and will stay and hopefully build on what has been another promising season.
4 defeats in a row now, but let that not distort what was an excellent run prior. Injuries have killed off any hope of the play offs, and cynics will argue that West Brom played their part in yesterday’s circus, leaking information about Neil’s apparent departure to the press on Thursday, but it’s in the past now. Neil stays, and North End hopefully will build on a promising season. Relegated Ipswich at Deepdale next, in what is sure to be an odd atmosphere, but it’s a chance to end the run of defeats and try to end the season on a high.