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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 30/09/01
Preston North End
Paul Scholes
By Matt Rowson

There's nothing quite as depressing as being stuck in a rut. The knowledge that your career/life/record collection is going nowhere constitutes a slow, painful death. Hence the decision to open this preview with the team news, and move on to the irrelevant nonsense later...

In goal for the Lillywhites will be Tepi Moilanen, a Finnish International who played a big part in Preston's satisfying win at St.Andrews last weekend. His deputy is Dave Lucas, who has dovetailed with Moilanen as first choice for several seasons. Andrew Lonnergan, so significant in our last meeting with Preston, has returned to the stiffs.

Right-back is former Luton chopper Gary Alexander, whilst on the left is Rob Edwards, scorer of the winning goal in Birmingham. Dominic Ludden, who occasionally nosed towards Preston's leftback slot between knocks, has left for Halifax. He's injured, apparently.

In the centre Chris Lucketti, a rugged and highly thought-of defender who has nonetheless been relegated from this division with each of his last two clubs. A foot injury meant that he was a doubt for Wednesday's match with Norwich. He has been partnered by Northern Ireland international and law graduate Colin Murdock, suspended for the Norwich tie. The other two options at centreback are the popular Michael Jackson and Ryan Kidd, who was suffering from a chest infection earlier in the week. Kidd has also played at left-back, although he'd probably wish to forget being fried by Tommy Smith in the first half of this fixture last season.

Midfield is widely perceived to be Preston's problem area, this reflected in the number of permutations that have been juggled with already this season. The successful quartet at Birmingham featured a central pairing of the talismanic Sean Gregan alongside Mark Rankine, scorer of the well-timed equaliser in the play-off semi at Deepdale and newly back from injury. On the right, Lee Cartwright has been one of the few bright notes of a generally disappointing start to the season, apparently surprising his many knockers with some positive performances. Paul McKenna featured on the left, despite a now infamous confrontation with his manager in Austria pre-season which is one of the factors being identified as reasons for North End's poor start.

Other possibilities in midfield include Scottish wide-man Iain Anderson and the uninspiring Brian Barry-Murphy, but young Irishman Michael Keane is doubtful with an ankle problem and Steve Robinson is out with an injured toe. David Moyes also added to his options on Tuesday with the recruitment of Scottish hatchet-man Billy McKinlay on a week-to-week deal.

Up front, Jonathan Macken's sulky demands for a transfer have corresponded to a personal nosedive in form which, combined with the timing of his request, seem to have put off one-time candidates Wolves. Alongside him David Healy has also been suffering from a lack of confidence since the resumption of the campaign. The most obvious alternative at the moment is former England U21 striker Richard Cresswell, whilst Steve Basham has tendonitis and Kevin Gallacher has taken Dom Ludden's season-ticket to the treatment room.

Given their history, not to mention the establishment of the magnificent National Football Museum at Deepdale, it wouldn't be too surprising to find the Lillywhites with as pathetic a misplaced sense of their own importance as some others in this Division. Refreshingly this does not appear to be the case. Preston's play-off spot last season was as unexpected and unheralded as it was deserved; as such the semi-final circus against Birmingham, rendered by Trev the comedy highlight of the year, was all the more enjoyable.

There's a distinction, which the inhabitants of Wolverhampton and Nottingham amongst others would do well to appreciate, between appreciating the past and living in it. Hence there is no begrudging the naming of the Sir Tom Finney Stand or the Bill Shankly Kop, as the listing of the names of these two greats in folklore is not seen as justifying PNE's promotion in itself.

There's also a danger in dismissing history too casually of course. Events on the field, for example, may lead to Luca regretting the thoughtless displacement of "Z-Cars", a woefully cheap frittering of precious brownie points. Equally, whilst the arrival of new and bigger-name players is exciting, one can't help but feel concern at the potential for the pursuit of this policy at the expense of the development of youngsters at which Watford has been so successful.

Perhaps the most sacrosanct of traditions in football history is the 3pm on a Saturday kick-off time. The sanctity of this tradition is already long besmirched by the influences of TV money, of course. However this weekend sees Preston make a not inconsiderable away trip for the second Sunday evening in succession. When the size of the travelling support alone begins to challenge the size of the TV audience for whom the charade is being performed, the justification of such nonsense begins to look as shaky as Manchester United's offside trap.

In keeping with the abandonment of structure, no punchline...