By Matt Rowson
I've got a mate from Preston. His name is Dave (pronounced "Dehv") and he's not really into football. He frequently asks about how "the Boys" are doing, and invariably does a thoroughly convincing job of appearing engrossed in stories of Watford's glorious victories or inglorious defeats. He's not, though. Not bothered at all, just making polite conversation. This he recently betrayed when backing out of coming to Saturday's game against PNE because he "couldn't really be arsed".
Eh? Can't be arsed? Come again? Doesn't register, doesn't compute. The formula you typed contained an error.
I mean, not being arsed to go to a football game? What's that all about? He can't be serious? But if he is... maybe it's not just him! Maybe there are more of them! Strange, unnatural types who inhabit the twilight zone outside of football grounds at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. It can't be safe, it certainly isn't healthy. Dear oh dear.
- For information about fixing common errors, go to the Estcourt before the game.
- To get assistance in entering Vicarage Road, click OK, then click "Yes, I'll come along" on the "Response" menu.
- If you are not trying to enter Vicarage Road, avoid using an equals sign ("=") or minus sign ("-") and just bloody sort your life out for Christ's sake.
Actually, I know what Dave does on a Saturday afternoon. He runs. Dave runs marathons before breakfast and a swift triathlon after work before supper. He takes his holidays in the Himalayas where he runs up and down mountains. He is without doubt the fittest man in the universe. Get a life, you sad bugger.
Meanwhile, it's 12.30 on Tuesday morning and I'm supposed to be writing about Preston North End; I'd better get on with it....
Preston is one of the three hundred and twenty six identical towns in Lancashire to boast a First Division club. Every football fan's geography of the country is based upon football; we can hence suppose that Preston is vaguely in Blackpool's direction, what with them being rivals'n'all, and little more needs to be said until we're trying to find Deepdale in April.
Having won the Second Division championship to gain promotion last season after several years of thinking about it, PNE are making a decent fist of their first season at this level in nineteen years. Seated tidily in the pack of half-a-dozen clubs chasing ourselves and Fulham, former centre-back Scotsman David Moyes will be more than satisfied with his charges' showing so far.
In goal for the visitors is likely to be David Lucas, a former England Youth keeper reputed to be a fine shot-stopper but a little shaky on crosses. He regained his place from Tepi Moilanen, last season's divisional keeper of the year, after the Finn suffered a back injury early in the season.
Regular right back is former Luton chopper Gary Alexander, but his involvement on Saturday is threatened by suspension. Alexander, like Northern Ireland international centre-back Colin Murdock, was sent off by the increasingly notorious Barry Knight at the City Ground a fortnight ago. In Alexander's absence, the right-back berth is likely to go to Gary Parkinson, scorer of a memorable goal at the Vic nearly three years ago.
On the left, Rob Edwards was part of the Bristol City squad that rivalled the Hornets for the Second Division title that same season. He is likely to get the nod ahead of Ryan Kidd, who may move across to cover for Murdock's absence in the centre, and ex-Watford full back Dominic Bastard. The latter's Deepdale career has been disrupted by injury, much as his career at Watford. Appropriately, the official PNE Website lists his favourite film as "Scum".
Captain Sean Gregan has moved back from midfield to a central defensive position this season. Strong and competitive, Gregan's distribution has limited his effectiveness thus far, and he has also noticeably lost his rag with his teammates on occasions. The most likely alternative to Kidd alongside him is Michael Jackson, hugely impressive for the Lilywhites for two seasons but struggling to live up to his growing reputation this year.
In midfield, Michael Appleton has been a chief beneficiary of Gregan's retreat to defence; the former Old Trafford reserve has been in commanding form thus far. So too Paul McKenna, who is obviously magic (oh come on, I resisted the Michael Jackson gag). Scotsman Ian Anderson, a fullback-cum-winger, arrived from Toulouse in the summer and has impressed whilst Mark Rankine, a former charge of GT's at Molineux, scurries around fairly aimlessly like a wind-up toy.
Midfield options, in addition to Gregan, include former Bournemouth wide-man Steve Robinson and the pacy but injury-prone Lee Cartwright. Brian Barry-Murphy is a Cork-born Irish U21 international, but no reserve team captain has ever had much of an immediate first team future.
Up front is probably where Preston's biggest problems lie. Jonathan Macken, like Murdock and Appleton a former Man.United reserve, is powerful and agile and finding goals no harder to come by at this level than he did last season. However, Macken's obvious striker partner Steve Basham looks to be out for the season having broken his leg against those delicate nymphs from Birkenhead, and in his absence there are few convincing deputies.
Eric Meijer was signed on a month's loan from Liverpool and his performances have been wholehearted but generally unconvincing; he'll play the last game of his loan spell, if selected. Bjarki Gunnlaugsson, brother of Leicester's Arnur, is enthusiastic but equally incapable of finding the net. Brian McBride was Stern John's partner at Columbus Crew (yeah, right) but is now missing with a blood clot on his arm.
Given our last two games, Preston appear to present a stiff challenge, but we were brushing aside challenges from teams of similar stature as little as a fortnight ago. A win in this one would be priceless, but if we find ourselves incapable of recovering poise after our recent knocks, then maybe we're not ready for another season's onslaught in the Premiership after all.