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Nationwide Division One, 22/4/01
Preston North End
Credible competitors
By Matt Rowson

"The Long Midnight of Barney Thompson", by Douglas Lindsay. A barber's shop in Glasgow. The topic: Modern Art.

He pauses, stares at the ceiling, tries to think of how he can best get his point across. He is not used to such intellectual debate. Standing and brushing himself down, he finds what he's looking for.

"Let's put it this way. If ye're watchin' fitba', right? Let's say some wee bloke playin' for Raith Rovers blooters the ba' fi' forty yards, and it flies intae the net. Now it may seem like a great goal, but let's face it, he probably meant tae pass it tae some eejit out on the wing and mishit it. Whatever, yae know he's bloody lucky. But if Brian Laudrup kicks the ball fi' forty yards and it flies intae the net, ye know he meant it. It's a thing of beauty. It's art. The execution and the outcome are the same, but the intentions were different. That's whit it's a' about. That's the difference."

Wullie thinks about this for a second or two. The man reaches for his jacket.

"A fine defence o' modern art ye've constructed there" says Wullie eventually.

"Aye, thanks" says the customer, fishing in his pockets for the required cash.

"However, it's a complete load o' bollocks".

And so it is. Bollocks. Completely. Logic such as that above was used to justify the distinction between Glenn Hoddle's pinpoint passes and Ian Bolton's picking out of John Barnes. Cultured football versus hit-and-hope. Or maybe you have to be six feet up your own arse to be a "proper" footballer.

Such is the logic also that will, for example, dismiss Preston out of hand should they reach and triumph in the play-offs, whilst the likes of Birmingham might be treated as credible competitors in the Premiership. Somewhat laughably.

In fact, Preston North End have been the surprise package of the Division this season, and on the strength of their showing at the Vic in November they fully deserve to be competing for a play-off place. Such also was the opinion of Fulham fans encountered in a plummeting state of inebriation on their way back from confirming promotion at Huddersfield on Saturday. Preston were the only team, they said, to have come to Craven Cottage and tried to play football in the League all season. Or at least, the only side to do so successfully....

That's not to say that Preston are cruising towards the top flight. Indeed, prior to Monday's impressive if slightly flattering 4-0 win at Oakwell, the Lilywhites' form was far from convincing. Add to this a challenging run-in which pitches the Lancashire side against West Brom and Blackburn as well as ourselves and on-form Crewe in their last four games. Like ourselves, Preston have been making rather heavy weather of all this.

And just as the Forest side that we met two weeks ago had the added motivation of the financial calamities that await their failure to make the Premiership, so Preston have an added incentive to get to Cardiff. David Moyes was a fairly low-profile appointment three years ago, but his achievement in resurrecting Preston was being recognised in wider circles long before their Second Division Championship last season. The repetitive links to old club Celtic may have been abated by circumstances for the moment, but every Premiership vacancy has Moyes' name on it, currently the seat vacated by the "thinking man's" (ha) Ian Bolton at the Dell.

In goal for Preston will be David Lucas, who put some nervous displays behind him with a decisive, man-of-the-match performance at Oakwell on Monday. In the absence of the injured Tepi Moilanen, youngster Andrew Lonergan provides cover.

Right-back is the gnarled former Luton chopper Gary Alexander, who is also North End's penalty taker. His cover is Derek Collins, a loan signing from Hibernian following the departure of Gary Parkinson to local rivals Blackpool.

Left-back is Rob Edwards, a member of the Bristol City side that Watford beat to the Second Division title in 1998. He has won over some doubters with consistently solid displays in the latter half of the season. Ryan Kidd is the most likely deputy, although he has more recently filled in for the injured Michael Jackson at centre-half, his shocking performance at the Vic an apparently isolated incident. Dominic Ludden is thankfully nowhere to be seen; the factors that blighted his Watford career, injuries not least, persist.

In the centre, Kidd is currently partnered by the improving Northern Ireland international Colin Murdock. Club captain Sean Gregan can also fill in here, but his commitment is thought best employed in central midfield, where certain limitations to his game are less exposed. Another youngster, Paul Morgan, provides further cover in defensive positions.

Alongside Gregan is Mark Rankine, a workhorse about whom many Preston fans seem to harbour reservations. Adding width and creativity are Paul McKenna, and Scot Iain Anderson, both of whom were hugely impressive at Vicarage Road. Former Cork City midfielder Brian Barry-Murphy and Icelandic Bjarki Gunnlaugsson, brother of Leicester's Arnar, provide cover. Lee Cartwright is a wide-option, but seems to be injury-prone. Ulsterman Steve Robinson, meanwhile, has been out with an ankle problem.

It was the mobility of Preston's forwards, particularly the prolific Jonathan Macken, which particularly caught the eye at the Vic. Macken has since been joined by another Ulsterman David Healy - like Macken, a recruit from Old Trafford - and the on-loan Richard Cresswell. Steve Basham continues to recover from a broken leg whilst terms could not be agreed with American Brian McBride.

Sunday is self-evidently the single most crucial game of the four timetabled remaining fixtures. A win, as GT has suggested, doesn't guarantee us a play-off slot, but would leave us a point behind Preston and applying further pressure to the crumbling Birmingham (oh, please let them cock it up!) and West Brom. A defeat is not the end, but we'd need an awful lot of snookers.

A glance at the league table, and at pretty much any Watford performance, suggests that we don't have a problem going forward. Even our most miserable bumblings have tended to yield a couple of goals.

But we don't half need to defend better. Not just the back four, but the whole team. We could do with an extra obstacle in the middle of the park.

And that glass jaw that ig mentioned in his Grimsby report. We need to be able to take a punch, certainly now, more so should we make the Premiership again. We need a leader, someone to inspire and to terrify and to stick a rocket up the arses of the rest of the team when things go against us.

We need someone in the middle of the park who can do all these things. A midfielder with a shot that could flatten a bull rhinoceros. A midfielder whose family, coincidentally, emigrated from Preston to New South Wales before he was born.

A midfielder who successfully continued his comeback with the reserves at home to Southampton on Wednesday.

Nobody wants him to come back too soon. But we haven't half missed our artist in chief in the middle of the park.