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Nationwide Division One, 18/11/00
Preston North End
First Division
By Ian Grant


Welcome back to the real First Division. The place where life sometimes kicks you in the teeth. And, if life doesn't do it, the Tranmere midfield will.

Here, there's no respect for reputation or history. Nobody stands to attention when their ex-Premiership superiors enter the room, nobody listens to the old has-beens who sit around and ramble on about past glories. This is no place for sentiment.

Perhaps weaknesses aren't exploited quite so ruthlessly here - although the three goals scored by Preston, each taken so clinically, were strongly reminiscent of those we repeatedly conceded in the top flight - but the vultures certainly start to circle as soon as you sit down for a bit of a rest. Only from a distance can you look at the Nationwide with any kind of fondness. It's brutal.

So, really, anyone who came over all misty-eyed last season at memories of life down here must be starting to worry. We'll win more games against current opponents, clearly...but it's already obvious that a few enjoyable victories won't be enough to satisfy the majority of Vic Road spectators, too many of whom started sulking the moment our unbeaten run came to an end. We're not doing this for fun, clearly, and nothing less than automatic promotion will do.

Well, we won't achieve that aim by virtue of football's new class system. The Premiership might have clear divisions between the stinking rich, the pleasantly rich and the just slightly rich, but the First Division is a complete bloody free-for-all. Nobody has a right to anything.

As ever, there'll be too much talk about commitment and passion following this defeat. In a week that's finally seen English football start to move away from the traditional idea that any problem can be solved by greater effort, it'd be nice to talk about something else. As a club, we've temporarily lost our focus. Both on and off the pitch, we appear to have let the reality of First Division life slip away from us...and, as already noted, that's how you make yourselves vulnerable at this level.

There was no lack of commitment here. As a performance, it lacked only anticipation, concentration and lateral thought. Anticipation, because we appeared to be constantly reacting to events that the opposition had seen coming. Concentration, because the lively, enterprising Preston strikers needed to be watched at every moment...and, from the moment that Robert Page was caught ball-watching by Anderson after five minutes, we didn't watch closely enough. Lateral thought, because as we spent the final fifteen or twenty minutes searching for a third equaliser, we had clearly run out of ideas.

Even more than previous defeats, however, this wasn't just about us. Preston weren't at all shy about letting us know exactly why they've had such an outstanding start to a season that began with modest hopes of a mid-table position. In short, they were absolutely excellent - organised and effective, certainly, but also full of lethal danger. The finest First Division team that we've encountered so far, unquestionably. If any Watford fans were still under any illusions about the difficulty of our task, then this might've come as a bit of a shock. It's not only the players who need a wake-up call.

It was a curious game, in many ways. A great splurge of action, sandwiched between two long periods of generally Preston-dictated stalemate. It's difficult to escape the worrying feeling that these are the kind of games that promoted sides win, dramatically snatching victory to send their fans home with a great rush of euphoria.

For nearly half an hour, the pattern was extremely familiar. The visitors certainly hadn't come to defend, yet it still appeared to be a question of whether we could find a way of breaking the goalless deadlock. We've seen it before and, even allowing for the recent defeats, there was cause to believe that the forwards would make the breakthrough sooner or later. As Tommy Smith began to make penetrating runs down the right, drawing opponents into lunging tackles on a slippery surface, it seemed that we might've found the crucial weakness.

The chances wouldn't come, though. Indeed, after the lapse from Page that I mentioned earlier, Anderson's angled shot forced Espen Baardsen into the first save of the match. It was a good one too, in that he couldn't afford to spill the ball with strikers waiting to pounce.

It took us thirteen rain-soaked minutes to produce anything of note. When it finally happened, it was a welcome indication that our passing football hasn't completely deserted us. Micah Hyde's smashing cross-field pass was nodded down by Gifton Noel-Williams. Smith collected possession, sped past a fearful defender and produced a lovely cross towards the far post. As you'd expect, Tommy Mooney was arriving to meet it...but he headed wide under challenge.

From then on, it became pretty dreary. Enlivened only by our occasional attempts to burrow down the right wing, the game offered no real indication of what was to come. It looked like the kind of match that would be decided by a single goal, if it was decided at all.

Suddenly and astonishingly, it just went berserk. After twenty-eight minutes, Parkinson surged past Mooney's challenge and slid a low cross into the box. Meijer, standing alone inside the six yard box and, with Baardsen at the near post, in front of an unguarded goal, looked over his shoulder to see the ball trickling behind him. Very, very lucky. Almost immediately, a swerving shot from the excellent McKenna whistled a yard wide - close enough that Baardsen felt it necessary to hurl himself across just in case.

Two minutes later, Preston brought this unexpected burst of savage attacking to a conclusion by taking the lead. Appleton's cross from the left, Macken beating Page at the near post and deftly flicking the ball past Baardsen. The visitors' goals were characterised by the sheer quality of the finishing - sharp, urgent chances converted with precision. As I've said, it brought back a few painful Premiership memories.

As is the First Division's wont, what had seemed entirely predictable had just reared up and poked us in the eye. Shocked, we immediately went on the offensive. It took just seven minutes to equalise. After Palmer had drilled a drive wide, Kidd's sliced pass let in Smith on the right - this time, there was no challenge on Mooney and he thumped a header past Lucas.

Having been bored and restless, we were now thrilled and breathless. Like trying to open a milk carton that initially resists and then splatters its contents everywhere, the match had exploded without warning. Now it was our turn to batter the opposition goal. After Smith's break onto an inspired Hyde pass, Lucas managed to turn Allan Nielsen's close range effort onto the post and a defender turned it behind. Although the corner was cleared, it eventually fell to Neil Cox, who crashed in a shot that brought a superb, strong save from the Preston keeper. Furious, stunning action.

Preston had no intention of behaving themselves, though. They went up to the Rookery end and, to our immense dismay, they scored again. While there were doubts about the goal's legitimacy - when Meijer received the ball on the right, he appeared to be a couple of yards offside - there was again no question about the brilliance of the finishing. As defenders stood around with their hands in the air, Meijer advanced and crossed. From a seemingly impossible angle at the near post, Rankine somehow managed to squeeze his header past Baardsen, looking back to see it hit the underside of the bar, the far post and then the back of the net.

Three minutes until half-time. Still there was more. With the Hornets labouring and in desperate need of a break, injury time began. As Micah Hyde knocked a square ball into Steve Palmer's path and the midfielder pushed it forward, everyone wearily willed him to have a shot. He had a shot. And, bloody hell, it was worthy of Johnno himself - arcing and dipping from thirty yards, possibly with the aid of a deflection, it took no notice of Lucas' flailing dive and smashed into the roof of the net. Palmer appeared to be as surprised as everyone else.

Naturally, we expected to put all our worries behind us by winning what had become a thoroughly invigorating encounter. This wasn't a match that bothered much about the expected, however. Instead, Preston rapidly gained a stranglehold at the start of the second half.

Again, there was an element of controversy about the winning goal. On the touchline, Hyde's sliding tackle appeared to have missed the ball entirely, yet the throw was awarded to Preston. The point is, of course, that you only make such decisions important if you fail to defend the situations that result. Instead, we were in disarray as a sharp exchange of passes presented Anderson with an opportunity that he took with real composure, steering a low shot into the bottom corner from twelve yards. Another tremendous finish.

We had no answer this time. Indeed, having gained the upper hand at the vital moment, the away side might've gone on to record a more comprehensive victory. In the ten thoroughly depressing minutes that followed the third goal, McKenna hit another viciously swerving drive from twenty-five yards that brushed the outside of the post. Then Macken laid the ball back to Anderson, whose superb, curling chip bounced on top of the crossbar.

This lot were too damn sharp for us. Like Grimsby, they were full of movement, pace and invention. Unlike Grimsby, they completed their moves with confident, accurate attempts on goal. Although you can find several reasons to criticise our performance, you can't ignore the quality of the opposition. There's plenty of crap in the First Division, to be sure...but there's more than enough that's definitely not crap to keep us out of the promotion places if we're not careful.

We'd already lost the game, sadly. Preston weren't about to let the lead slip away for a third time. They pushed their defence up towards the halfway line, squeezing the air out of the midfield. With no room to breathe, Micah Hyde and Allan Nielsen faded from the game, leaving the forwards without any controlled possession. In forty-five minutes, we managed just one on-target goal attempt - a harmless shot from Hyde after a run from deep - and created no clearcut chances at all.

As ever, we looked to Nordin Wooter to do something to save us. He came on, replacing the fading Mooney. He received the ball, spent five minutes fiddling around in an attempt to get a cross in...and wondered why there were so many defenders around when he finally did so. Then he received the ball, took a controlling touch, whipped in the most sensational early cross...and wondered why none of the strikers had anticipated it. "A watched pot never boils", or something. Very frustrating.

Having failed to change things with one substitution, we tried two more. But, by the time that Allan Smart and Heidar Helguson entered the fray, the service to the forwards had deteriorated to such an extent that they were lucky if the ball came within twenty yards of them. With nearly all the scrapping and battling happening around the centre circle, Lucas' life was depressingly peaceful - he watched a Robinson lob drift over the bar and a Smart header bounce wide, nothing more.

In contrast, Espen Baardsen still needed to pay attention. Indeed, he was perhaps fortunate that his save from Anderson's angled shot bounced out to a defender rather than a striker - on the available evidence, you could safely assume that the striker wouldn't have missed.

There was no particular tension about the final minutes. Even if three minutes of injury time seemed inadequate for the amount of time-wasting, it seemed highly unlikely that we'd score. As Micah Hyde joined Robert Page in belting the ball so far up in the air - not forwards, just up in the air - that it went beyond the reach of the floodlights and was lost completely in the darkness of the winter sky, we'd obviously run out of inspiration. Still, at least it had stopped raining.

So, the situation's pretty clear. At least, it's pretty clear if you're not still convinced that we've got a divine right to promotion.

Already, there's much speculation about how we might do if we returned to the Premiership next season. On this evidence, we'd get bloody slaughtered. Nothing to do with our form on the pitch, everything to do with the fact that we seem so mentally weak. It takes no more than a couple of defeats to send us over the edge, to convince us that we're useless and worthless.

The team carries on playing. Not playing well or confidently, granted...but it carries on playing. Meanwhile, what the hell are we doing? Waiting to be impressed, complaining bitterly about certain players, childishly bellowing the names of substitutes in an "I DON'T LIKE IT! MAKE IT STOP!" sort of way, blaming the referee, leaving grumpily before the final whistle, showing no respect for the opposition, assuming that we're woefully under-performing if we don't win by a shedload. Welcome to White Hart sodding Lane.

Sure, we can win promotion. Not like this, though. Not when we run away blubbing as soon as things start to get difficult. We need to pull ourselves together, frankly. Pull our socks up, pull our fingers out, that kind of thing. Stop sulking, stop dreaming. Get up, get at 'em, get real. All of us, not just the ones running around on the pitch.

To repeat, we're a First Division club. We play in the First Division against other First Division clubs. Jesus, which bit of that makes us imagine that we're too good for this league?