The league table doesn’t always tell the whole story.
Wycombe Wanderers have been languishing at the bottom of the table for the majority of the season. They had won just five league games before this weekend. Out of all the remaining fixtures of Preston’s schedule, you may well count this as one of the most likely for them to get three points.
Instead, a dominant first half display from Wycombe where Preston sat back and allowed them to have chance after chance, was enough for the victory.
Ryan Tafazolli was given free roam in the box on numerous occasions and eventually planted home a header from a Joe Jacobson corner.
Despite an improvement in the second half, Preston didn’t come close to scoring. Where do they go from here? Serious questions need to be asked.
Can Neil last much longer?
For those firmly in the ‘Neil in’ corner, they must be running out of reasons as to why he should stay. The football has been diabolical this season. I find it amazing how North End are only 15th at the moment. The season has a feel to it that would suggest we are much lower. That may well soon be the case though. We are just six points from 20th with two teams below us having a game in hand. You like to see progress from season to season, but in Neil’s case from 2017 onwards, the team is getting worse. That was the 18th defeat of the season. 50% of the league games have ended in defeat.
Two years ago today, Preston came from behind to beat Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium. A late Jayden Stockley winner gave fans belief that they could sneak into the play-offs. On Tuesday Preston face Boro again. A defeat in that game and fans will begin to look over their shoulders at the relegation zone.
‘The new signings need time to gel’, ‘We’re missing key players’, ‘Other teams have bigger budgets.’ All valid excuses but there’s only so many times you can use the same ones. Wycombe have the lowest budget in the league. This is their first time at this level. Yet they made us look like the team in 24th.
Preston were lucky to get a 2-2 draw against the Chairboys at Deepdale earlier in the season thanks to some defensive errors. The FA Cup tie between the two sides was settled by half time and in the third encounter, North End still hadn’t learnt from their mistakes. Zero gameplan was displayed on Saturday.
I firmly believe that if fans were in stadiums this season, Alex Neil would not have survived this. Deepdale would be toxic. You can put up with defeats here and there if there is a clear and obvious way of playing. But it literally looks like 11 players get put on the pitch and they’ll see what happens.
Are there any positives?
It’s hard to draw on any from this season at all. The squad is in transition and with a few of the loan signings looking very promising it’s hard to believe any of them would see themselves back at Deepdale next season. Daniel Iversen and Anthony Gordon will be able to play for much better teams. Jayson Molumby has been a bit of a waste of a signing and Sepp van den Berg will probably stick around.
Greg Cunningham and Ched Evans will be happy with any contract offer at this level. As for the squad already tied up for next season, Alan Browne and Daniel Johnson have both had poor campaigns by their standards. Scott Sinclair is the top scorer but goes missing in some games. Emil Riis has shown a bit of promise but looks unlikely to hit double figures at this level. Seani Maguire remains a frustrating player incapable of reaching the heights of his first season with us. One player will win Player of the Season at the end of all this. Your guess is as good as mine.
Midfield good on paper but not in action
A midfield trio of Browne, DJ and Ben Whiteman looks like a good mix. The former two have committed their future to the club whilst Whiteman was brought in from Doncaster Rovers for a decent sum of money.
Browne has been poor since moving back into midfield from the right back position. DJ rarely completes a full 90 minutes this season, and for me Ben Whiteman hasn’t improved this team. He looks keen to have the ball and spray a few passes around but it hasn’t progressed the style of play from the team as a whole.
Ryan Ledson has been massively missed. His development in the last year has been great. Going back to my earlier question regarding Player of the Year, this man deserves a shout. One of only a handful to come away from the past year with his head held high. His game is developing and the midfield should be built around him next season.
Anthony Gordon needs to play
The talented winger is a great player and always looks to create chances when he is on the pitch; which unfortunately isn’t often enough at the moment. There’s no doubt he’s the best attacking player at the club at the moment. He has a trick or two up his sleeve and deserves a goal which could see him go on a run of more. He’s yet to complete 90 minutes for the club. He got just 27 against Wycombe and 24 the week before against Bournemouth. He’s not going to be here long-term so there’s no time to ease him in. He wants to play so give him game time.
‘We can’t do any better than Neil’
Something often said in response to the calls for Neil to lose his job is that the club won’t be able to attract anyone better. Is that really the case? There will be plenty of managers who will jump for an opportunity in the Championship.
Barnsley went for Valerien Ismael after spells in Germany and Austria. He’s done a fantastic job and they look in a very strong position to at least finish in the play-offs. Of course, Barnsley’s recruitment in previous years has helped him with a lot of those coming from overseas as well.
Perhaps it’s time for North End to think outside the box. A foreign manager with a new style of play could breathe a new lease of life into the club. Currently the style of play employed is dour and it isn’t yielding any results. It’s a blessing fans haven’t been able to watch that this season.
Gareth Ainsworth has been written off as a successor by some, but he’s certainly proven that he’s a better tactician than Neil when it comes to head-to-heads.
Chris Wilder built his way up with success at Halifax Town, Oxford United and Northampton Town before getting a chance at Sheffield United. He then led them to 9th in the Premier League table. An incredible job overall, and he will go on to attract much better offers than North End for his next job.
However, who’s to say we can’t attract someone of a similar ilk to him when he became Blades manager? There could be someone sitting in League Two or lower now who could turn out to be the perfect fit for North End.
The truth is, it’s hard to predict the future for Preston North End. But it does look increasingly like it is time for a change.