By Joseph Richardson
After four seasons in League One, it finally seems like this is the year Preston North End return to English football’s second tier. After suffering another play off heart ache against Rotherham a year ago, the emphasis this campaign has solely been on automatic promotion. But those hopes looked remote at best in January. No league wins, and significant points dropped at home.
And then North End’s fortunes changed. Since the Crawley defeat, PNE have put together a quite sensational run of 15 league games unbeaten, including ten wins.
On paper, April’s fixtures looked extremely challenging, as the promotion race hotted up. The month started with a hard fought 1-0 victory over Rochdale. Not vintage, but a vital three points after costly late goals at Fleetwood and Barnsley.
A quite superb 3-0 away win against Bradford followed. Despite playing the majority of the match against ten men, it was a flawless away performance. The fans were buoyant, and could taste promotion going into the game with leaders Bristol City. Deepdale was bouncing, and Beckford gave North End the lead, but they were pegged back and had to settle for a point.
The current team are a transformation from the side that looked bereft of quality in January. Defensively they are solid, allowing their attacking midfielders Gallagher and Robinson to provide the guile and feed two of the league’s most potent strikers: Jermaine Beckford, and of course top scorer Joe Garner.
Garner’s return has certainly been a huge influence. There’s no doubt he galvanises others around him, not to mention his devastating eye for goal. The fact he is the league’s joint top scorer, discounting Eoin Doyle is remarkable, having missed nine league games through injury. It’s not to say Preston are a one man team, but they definitely ooze confidence with him up top.
Garner has stolen the headlines, but the impact of loanee Daniel Johnson cannot be underestimated. Possessing a wonderful left foot, and an eye for goal, the Jamaican has been a superb acquisition.
Watching this team, you feel the confidence and belief on the terraces. When results weren’t going their way, there was unrest and anxiousness amongst fans. Every misplaced pass, every wayward shot would be greeted with moans and groans. But now, the expectation is sky high.
That will have been deflated somewhat after letting two points slip against Gillingham. At half time, PNE were two goals up and cruising. But perhaps complacency set in. The visitors pulled a goal back, and Preston’s Achilles heel of dropping deep and inviting pressure allowed Gillingham to level in stoppage time.