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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 31/01/02, 7.45pm
Preston North End
The nominations are...
By Matt Rowson

This week, Walsall sacked Ray Graydon. Not an event that will fill too many inches in the national tabloids, but an incident that is remarkable if only for its unparalleled stupidity. Really, the Albatross League ought have had no contenders for any Misplaced Sense of Self-Importance Award this season, but the Saddlers' board may just have taken the biscuit.

Walsall, with the greatest respect, are hardly one of the big names of British football. They weren't even a big club by the standards of last season's Second Division, but Graydon got them promoted anyway, for the second time in three seasons and on a budget that would barely keep Ramon in sun-tan lotion. But a precarious position on the edge of the relegation zone isn't enough for Walsall's big-thinking small-spending board. Oh no.

(That Colin Lee has recorded an impressive cup upset in his first match in charge means little, incidentally. He won his first match in charge at Watford also, remember).

Echoes of similar nonsense at Deepdale, among the support if not the hierarchy of the club itself, leading manager David Moyes to issue some direct and emotional rebuffals to criticism of the team's performances this season in Saturday's programme notes.

It's perhaps not too surprising that, having come so close to promotion last year, Preston fans might have been hoping for a little more than an Aston Villa sort of season this time around. There's a crucial distinction between hope and expectation though. Hoping for and aiming for promotion is one thing, getting vocally stroppy when you don't take the division by storm is quite another, particularly when your club has spent the last twenty-odd years in the lower divisions.

With touching sentimentality, Preston have named the "Alan Kelly Town End" as the number twelve on their official squad-number list with the Football League. On this evidence, the Lilywhites' support won't be pushing for a first eleven shirt for a while.

To Thursday, then, and yet another screwing around of fixtures that suits neither set of fans; surely the smallest away contingent of the season will be making the trip up to Lancashire, whilst Preston, with a cup-tie last Saturday and another league fixture at Bradford on Tuesday, could probably have done with a day or two's break.

In goal for the home side will be the Finn Tepi Moilanen; with David Lucas missing with a hip problem eighteen-year-old Andy Lonergan, so impressive in this fixture last season, will make the bench.

At right-back, Graham Alexander is vice-captain and a dependable penalty-taker. On the left, Rob Edwards was in the Bristol City side with whom we jostled for the Division Two title in 1998. His cover is former Everton youngster Adam Eaton.

In the centre the single-minded Chris Lucketti is an automatic selection. His regular partner is Northern Ireland international Colin Murdock, however Murdock limped out of Saturday's cup-tie with an apparent recurrence of a foot injury. The obvious deputy is therefore the popular Michael Jackson, however last week's midfield arrivals could pave the way for skipper Sean Gregan to drop back to defence on a regular basis. The versatile Ryan Kidd was forced to announce his retirement earlier in the season.

Of the new arrivals Thordur Gudjonsson, an Icelandic wide player signed from Las Palmas, should play if fit. It seems unlikely that a player would be signed on a three month loan to strengthen the squad... Gudjonsson was on loan at Derby at the end of last season. The other new boy, Dixon Etuhu, arrives on a permanent deal from Manchester City; the youngster appears to be the long-term replacement for Mark Rankine in the Preston engine room. Rankine is currently out with a broken foot, and Paul McKenna also missed the weekend's game. Iain Anderson has been featuring down the left, however, and young Frenchman Eric Skora is being picked ahead of Lee Cartwright down the right but he too limped out of Saturday's cup tie. Irish teenager Michael Keane has also been getting a regular start.

Up front, Jon Macken's transfer shennanigans at the start of the season is one of the reasons being cited for Preston's relatively disappointing campaign. Macken has only occasionally reproduced last season's form, and has been in and out of the starting eleven. Record signing David Healy is still a regular however, with Richard Cresswell and Steve Basham competing with Macken for the second striker's slot. Basham started his first game in fifteen months at the weekend having suffered due to injury, but also left the pitch with a knock. The experienced Kevin Gallacher is out with hamstring problems.

Watford have had considerably more time to prepare for this match than their hosts, but the severity of Neil Cox's injury and Heidar Helguson's suspension mean that our central defensive options are pretty limited. Seeing as Preston have managed to name their home end in their squad, perhaps we should try to enrol Phil Mitchell as a stand-in centreback. After all, he's far more used to putting in a performance on a Thursday evening.

And you wouldn't argue, would you?