By Asher Peters
"Not quite crisis time yet" (Radio 5). Thank goodness for that, then.
We were better than we have been lately, in the first half at least. Tommy Smith running riot, and Micah instantly resuming his regal authority in the midfield, it was an evenly fought treat of a game. Preston, with Mark Rankine and Jonathan Macken outstanding, were playing a viciously effective counter-attacking game that was nowhere near as negative as that kind of football can be. Chances were evenly-spread and goals looked inevitable. Sure enough, they nutmegged Cox, all game looking a shadow of his recent commanding self, and Macken flicked Preston into the lead. If we do have a crisis, it is in confidence - teams now usually look as if they can score. Yet, a quick equaliser was no more of a surprise, Smith's extensive run setting up another goal for Mooney.
It was fine entertainment, but tension in the crowd brought aggro into what should have been an uplifting half. Firstly, Rob Harris was having a terrible time refereeing and was less than ably supported by his assistants. The standard ignorance of any foul on Gifton was augmented by absurdly-varying levels of officiousness, and a higher than usual quota of those moments when it seems the entire stadium sees something one way only for the ref to disagree. Also the Preston fans, a good fifteen hundred-plus huddled together from the rain, could only muster any real support when their side was in the lead. The first audible chant I could make out was "You're not singing anymore". Unnecessarily negative always, I think, given it naturally comes just at a time when your own side deserves support, but unceasingly popular, and of course we shortly responded in kind. The growing feeling was of perceived injustice, lacking only a real injustice to bring it to the surface, especially as the Rookery was itself back to some kind of singing form.
We did not have to wait long. Off, offside or both, I assumed as another neat, pacy Preston move let Rankine score. "D: none of the above" was the verdict. Given the improvements visible in our play, indignation kept Mr Angry busy rather than the usual criticism of the team - for now at least. Again we had enough left to equalise, even if Palmer's long-range effort seemed to be deflected very fortunately. Drawing a couple of very good saves from their keeper Lucas, it should have been an optimistic half time, and indeed rarely are people singing in the Rookery food area.
The first half was well represented by a level score-line, and in equality of skill and style made a good advert for the division. The same was not true of a second period Preston easily ruled. We left all our ideas in the changing room, and their fluency on the break became the defining motif. Shame for them we could again point to the officials' inadequacy as, when Hyde fouled a player knocking the ball off, a throw-in to the visitors resulted. One foul on Page later, it was 3-2.
Though I spent the rest of the game hoping for an improbable equaliser, a better conclusion might have been a genuinely valid goal for Preston to give their deserved lead more of a feeling of validity. We have now lost twice recently to teams containing a number of players from Man United's reserve team, but only one of them is in an undeservedly low league position.
As for Watford, well, if fate was paying us back a little with the officials' performances, it hardly makes up for all the times we have been lucky to win. Mutterings of "just hasn't got the players" when leaving the ground are oddly misplaced, given both that we have virtually never played well enough this year to match Preston over two halves, and crucially the ignoring of our short-comings we have shown as fans - "Bye-bye to the Nationwide"? I can't see us accepting that from an opposing side before the turn of the year.
We are currently a top eight side on holiday in the sun of the automatic promotion places, capable of football deserving of that status but having allowed ourselves to believe the fiction that our so far exceptional results truly reflect the games we have played. In the quagmire of the First Division, anyone can beat anyone - that's how we went up, remember? - and the sooner we revise our requirements of the team - anything above a playoff position would be a fortunate bonus - the better. That's not defeatist - writing off the side as soon as a (still short by our recent standards) losing streak comes along is defeatist. It is surprising to see that a bout of division-hopping has left us only able to see the best or the worst of a given situation, especially given how long we had previously spent stagnating in this one. We're still doing amazingly well, we're still three points clear in second place. There is not a crisis. There are, however, plenty of reasons to step up our support.