Preston slipped to a fourth straight defeat today, losing 4-1 away at West Bromwich Albion.
A catastrophic first half saw Dwight Gayle score twice, before Jay Rodriguez notched a third. Gayle completed his hat-trick in the second half, with Callum Robinson’s goal merely a consolation.
Forget about the play-offs, they’ve long gone now. This is a torrid run after 12 games unbeaten, but this defeat has been met with a stronger reaction than those before.
That’s because the meeting at The Hawthorns had been somewhat overshadowed by speculation about Alex Neil’s future. West Brom have been pursuing Neil as their new manager, with the Express and Star claiming they’re stepping up their interest in the Scot.
Some wondered whether Neil’s heart would really be in today’s game, against the team he could be managing in a matter of days. Add in a dismal performance and Neil’s inability to applaud the travelling fans on Gentry Day, and the atmosphere is suddenly turning sour.
Fans had been hoping Neil would stay. He’s been a fantastic manager for North End, and seeing him leave now would be gutting. Yet now, some are merely hoping he goes – just to put an end to the saga.
Personally, I hope Neil stays. I hope he’s backed by Trevor Hemmings. I hope he’s promised that key players aren’t leaving. I hope he’s fully committed to the club heading into a key transfer window.
However, Neil’s excuse for today’s display does not wash. As quoted by the Express and Star’s Matt Wilson, Neil thinks North End players were affected by speculation, prompting such a dismal display.
Although Neil has just voluntarily offered up that managerial speculation got to his players today. "I could see it in their eyes before the match. It's affected them… I think you could see it on the pitch." #wba #pnefc
— Matt Wilson (@mattwilson_star) April 13, 2019
Now, you can say West Brom intentionally leaked their interest in Neil ahead of this game to try and unsettle North End. After two defeats in a row, they needed to get back on track. Leaking their interest in Neil certainly worked a treat for the Baggies today.
Neil can’t act like he wasn’t complicit in this though. On Monday, Neil said he had ‘no intention’ of leaving North End. Come Thursday, with West Brom rumours gathering pace, his response took a different tone. Rather than talk about a future at Preston, Neil only spoke of the present. Focusing on Preston now, preparing for the game, etc. There was no longer a strong indication that he saw his future at Preston.
If you think ongoing speculation is going to affect your players, there’s a pretty easy way to stop that; make it abundantly clear that you’re not going. Instead, Neil allowed the speculation to rumble on into this game.
Neil has now told the Lancashire Evening Post’s Dave Seddon that the situation won’t go on much longer. But again, instead of assuring fans, players and staff that he’s not going, he merely said the saga needs a conclusion.
I asked AN about having another game on Friday and could the speculation keep running? His answer: "I wouldn't imagine it will run for that long. This type of things needs to be brought to a conclusion."
— Dave Seddon (@Sedds_lep) April 13, 2019
The way Neil’s answers to questions about his future have changed in the last five, six days are striking. It’s likely that the situation will be resolved by the time Preston face Ipswich Town on Friday.
Whether Neil is the North End manager or not, we’ll have to wait and see. But his excuse for today’s defeat simply doesn’t wash, having been given every chance to shoot own the rumours again and again.