The Sir Tom Finney stand is many things. A family friendly area, a nice environment to watch football are a couple of these things. A stand known for rapturous noise and what the folk on social media affectionately refer to as “limbs”, it is not.
The 94th minute of this Saturday afternoon was extremely out of character for my usual choice of seating location. When Seani Maguire’s header nestled in that bottom left- corner there was a rare case of “limbs” on the Finney. People in tears, very nearly including myself and I can categorically promise I would have been were I even slightly a “happy crier”.
Looking across to the Town End, more famously rowdy, I have to say it’s a miracle no bones were broken over there. There were bodies flying everywhere, strangers hugging each other so tight you thought their brains might trickle out of their ears! Absolute. Scenes.
So, incredible ending scenes, probably up there with one of the best football moments of my life in terms of meaning and jubilation. Was the game all that brilliant? Oh, heavens no.
It was clear from the outset that North End would miss the injured Paul Gallagher, space at a premium in the opening minutes, as indeed it was for the rest of the game.
Garry Monk organised the visitors well, using a 4-4-2 that became extremely compact after losing the ball. Lukas Jutkiewicz and Che Adams sat fairly deep all game and screened Ben Pearson who, while solid, had a noticeably quieter than usual game at Deepdale, particularly after getting booked for what looked like a fantastic challenge in the ninth minute.
Che Adams had the best opportunity of the opening exchanges. The ball squirmed through the Preston defence who were caught out by a sudden flick forward in their single loss of concentration of the game. It fell to top scorer Adams who poked towards goal but Declan Rudd was out to save smartly with his feet.
Preston set up in a similar way to recent fixtures, a 4-2-3-1 shape, but having scored the winner at The Riverside in midweek, Jayden Stockley led the line for Alex Neil’s side. This change meant Maguire dropped back into the hole behind the striker, with Lukas Nmecha and the returning Brad Potts flanking the Irishman on either side.
None of that three-man support saw a great deal of the ball in the first half. North End haven’t resorted to route one a whole lot this season, but the presence of Jayden Stockley up top from the start made way for constant aerial balls towards the big number 20, Daniel Johnson a notable culprit of attempting long balls almost every time he could.
This tendency to go long meant that Maguire, Potts and Nmecha, despite constant rotation between the three to keep the Brummie backline guessing, were getting bypassed by the vast majority of North End attacks, each of them only seeing the ball for snippets when the second balls fell from Stockley’s aerial challenges.
Stockley did make a nuisance of himself for parts of the game. He came as close as anybody in the North End side to breaking the deadlock in the first half. Good work from Andrew Hughes down the left found Maguire in the box, whose holdup play forced the ball back to Stockley. The former Exeter man turned well, but dragged his right footed shot wide of the near post.
Birmingham had the best opportunity of the whole first half soon after. Breaking down the left, the ball found its’ way inside to Jacques Maghoma. Maghoma pulled some neat footwork to work the ball onto his right foot and, seemingly with the goal at his mercy, placed the ball wide of the far post.
Sighs of relief around Deepdale, especially from around my position in the Finney where it looked for all the world like that ball had buried itself in the bottom corner and given the Blues what, it must be said, would have been a deserved lead.
Despite it being far from a vintage North End performance, Birmingham didn’t threaten to any great extent after the early chances for Adams and Maghoma. This was largely down to another superb display from the ever-impressive centre-half pairing of Jordan Storey and Ben Davies.
The composure they show on the ball, both individually and as a partnership, was evident throughout and was one of the most reliable and calming influences on the game. Each ball forward from the Birmingham midfield seemed to be magnetised to Storey or Davies who would control and play out from the back effortlessly, but, somewhat frustratingly, it just wouldn’t stick when it reached the other end of the field.
As the game meandered to the midway point with little else to comment on, PNE did almost come close when a corner fell to Andrew Hughes who saw his side-footed effort cleared inside the six-yard box by a Birmingham man to keep the game scoreless at the break.
The second half was much more of the same, very little by way of chances until as late as the 77th minute, Connor Mahoney firing the ball in towards goal saw his effort parried by Declan Rudd, who then saved smartly from the rebound as Birmingham looked to force a way through.
North End had made changes by this point. Brad Potts, who had not quite been himself, was substituted for the return of Callum Robinson, who injected a welcome quantity of pace and direction in the attacking third, as did Brandon Barker who set up PNE’s best opening in normal time in the second half.
Confidently giving Pederson the slip, Barker cut inside with silky footwork before feeding the ball to Daniel Johnson on the edge of the box, but DJ couldn’t work the space to get a clean shot away and saw his effort blocked.
After a late spell of Birmingham pressure, the game seemed to be petering out to a 0-0 draw. A scoreline that, in all honesty would have suited what was a drab affair on a horrible rainy afternoon at Deepdale. Preston though, suddenly found themselves breaking out from the back at some pace with Birmingham caught upfield. Maguire’s smart side-foot ball found Ben Pearson, who himself was busting an absolute gut to get into position. He in turn played it beyond the final defender for Daniel Johnson who was suddenly in on goal.
Johnson had Barker to his left but, seeing Lee Camp rushing out, appeared to go for a dinked finish over the oncoming keeper, but he was cruelly foiled by a big curly toe from a Brummie defender who diverted the attempt for a corner in front of the Finney, which DJ went over to take himself.
It was certainly a “now or never” scenario, and North End had really missed the influence of Paul Gallagher’s quality from set plays. DJ, spurred on by the home fans behind and to the right of him sent the inswinging corner towards the center of the box. Lee Camp started to come for it. Camp hesitated. The ball floated over him and landed plum on the head of Sean Maguire, the coolest head in Deepdale, who simply nodded down into the now unguarded net to send Deepdale into raptures.
The Irishman ran off to the corner of Finney and Town End, his now signature knee slide seeming to coincide with the cacophony of noise drummed up by the mixture of unbridled joy and immeasurable belief. The whole team, Declan Rudd having sprinted a whole one-hundred and ten yards included, piled up in the corner to celebrate what could be the most significant goal in our push for the play-offs so far!
It’s sadly (from a selfish point of view) the international break now, North End not back in action until March 30th when we travel to 21st placed Reading. Now just one place lies between PNE and the play-offs, and there’s only goal difference in that!
Let us know what you think, can we achieve what at the end of October might have been so much as absolutely unthinkable? Get in touch @fromthefinney on Twitter, or on the Facebook page to let us know. What a result! UTW.