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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 17/09/02, 7.45pm
Preston North End
Feng Shui
By Ian Grant

Something's going on. The sun never shines in Preston.

True, there's a fundamental flaw in the ancient Chinese art of Feng Shui...which is that Feng means Wind and Shui means Water, the combination of which is, surely, Selhurst Park, or perhaps Fratton on a bad day. And it is hard to see how Selhurst could be the product of a perfect union of the earth's elements, really. But we'll explore the theory.

Because there must be some explanation. According to my extremely shallow research into Feng Shui, the ideal position for a home would be with a mountain to the rear, open spaces ahead and hills on either side. No mention of allotments, mind. There's undoubtedly something in it, though...that probably is quite a good position for a home, all things considered. As with so much of this stuff, it was just common sense once.

So, some places have positive energy, some negative...and, as so often, Eastenders helps us to prove the theory. The Queen Vic has positive energy and attracts literally everyone, even the people who've been barred by Peggy and the others who are at loggerheads with Phil. Whereas the cafe clearly has negative energy - indeed, it's an economic miracle that it survives at all, considering that about half its customers seem to leave immediately after a row at the counter.

As for Preston...well, it's always dark. There is no daylight, only rumours that it once touched this part of the world. A trick of the fixture list, perhaps. Or maybe negative energy. Who knows, who cares, it's filled an introduction.

So, for the umpteenth time in succession - assuming umpteen equals three, that is - we travel up to Preston for a fixture on a day other than Saturday. Well, I say "we"...but a whole generation of Watford fans is growing up without ever visiting Preston, on the basis that travelling the length of the country on a Tuesday night or Thursday night or a Monday morning or whatever absurdity the fixture computer throws up is for the foolhardy - sorry, loyal - few. I would tell you if that was any great loss...but I've never been myself, for exactly the same reasons.

It's a bit of a shame, in some ways, for PNE have become one of the more pleasing features of the First Division since their promotion back in 2000. A club with a sense of its own rich history, yet one that doesn't constantly claim a divine right to Premiership status on that basis. A few years ago, when Wigan were embarking on a ludicrous, and futile, spending spree that resulted in a wage bill more than three times higher than their turnover, Preston adopted a far more sober, sensible strategy. It continues to serve them well.

Concerns that the departure of David Moyes to Everton might prove to be the bubble-bursting equivalent of Martin O'Neill leaving Leicester (or, yes, Graham Taylor leaving Watford) have thus far proved to be unfounded. The eventual exit of Jon Macken also leaves PNE without the scorer of one of the finest goals that I've ever seen, a forty-five yard half-volley on the turn against Manchester City last season. But Craig Brown is a steady appointment, in keeping with the club's emphasis on sustained growth rather than boom-and-bust, and he appears to have recruited well over the summer.

That said, a quick glance at the league table throws the current criticism of Ray Lewington into considerable perspective. Despite our "disappointing" start, Preston have so far gained three points fewer, albeit having played one game less. Furthermore, and assuming that I haven't missed the relevant page on their site, Brown appears to have virtually no injuries to concern him and has been picking from a near-full first team squad, at the same time as his Watford counterpart has struggled to find sixteen fit players. All of which isn't to suggest that Preston are in crisis, merely to point out that we're really not doing so terribly at this stage.

Granted, Preston didn't lose to their local rivals in the First Round of the Worthington Cup. They did, however, struggle to beat Scunthorpe at home, eventually winning with a Ricardo Fuller goal in extra-time. That Wimblescum were one of the few First Division teams to appear to relish their midweek cup outing seems to sum the whole nonsense up rather well. Anyway, you suspect that PNE will be rather more focused and less charitable on Tuesday....

The cup tie saw David Lucas replace Tepi Moilanen in goal, gaining the upper hand in a battle for the position that's been going on for years. The general consensus appears to be that Moilanen is excellent in dealing with crosses, less excellent at shot-stopping and is also prone to cock-ups, while Lucas is excellent at shot-stopping, less excellent in dealing with crosses and less prone to cock-ups. I think. A combination of the two would be ideal, really...but until then, the battle continues.

The regular right-back is Graham Alexander, scorer of a fine opening goal in last season's drawn fixture. He also won his first Scotland cap against Nigeria towards the end of the last campaign...and, seeing as a quarter of me is from that side of the border, I'll leave it at that, and you can make up your own sarcastic comments. On the left, Rob Edwards, formerly a central midfielder, was successfully converted when Rowson favourite Dom Ludden was crocked.

In the centre, a few choices, something that must make Ray Lewington rather envious. Marlon Broomes is a refugee from the on-going Sheffield Wednesday cash crisis and had an eventful summer, getting released from Hillsborough, training with Burnley in pre-season (he even appeared in the team photo), and then opting for Deepdale. He made his home debut against Scunthorpe. His partner in the cup match was much-travelled Chris Lucketti. Also available are Colin Murdock, an Northern Irish international, and the solid, if injury-prone, Michael Jackson.

The midfield has recently been bolstered by the addition of Eddie Lewis, an experienced member of the highly successful US World Cup team. Having failed to break through in two years at Fulham, Lewis has finally joined Preston after successfully appealing against the refusal of a work permit and made his debut against Scunthorpe. He generally plays on the left, with PNE's longest-serving player, Lee Cartwright, on the other flank. However, Cartwright was on the bench in the last game, with miniscule Michael Keane, a member of the Republic of Ireland Under-21 squad in the summer's European Championship, replacing him.

In the middle, former Wolves ball-winner Mark Rankine joined Cartwright on the bench for the Scunthorpe match, with Nigerian Dickson Etuhu taking his place. Paul McKenna, a scorer of spectacular goals, played alongside Etuhu. Sadly, there's no sign of Eric Skora, a Frenchman with a name that would make Jonathan Pearce think that Christmas had come early.

The forward line will be centred around either Ricardo Fuller or Richard Cresswell. The former, signed from Jamaican side Tivoli Gardens during the summer, is tall and strong and has already found the net four times so far. Despite the exotic-sounding source club, he's also had spells at Charlton, Palace and Hearts. The latter, previously at York, Sheffield Wednesday and Leicester, appears to have settled in well at Deepdale and was top scorer last season. His chant - the splendidly unequivocal "Richard Cresswell's f***ing brilliant" - is a timely reminder of why "The Alan Kelly Town End" continues to be listed as number twelve in Preston's squad...and why "The Rookery" isn't in Watford's. Either of these is likely to be supported by the nippier David Healy, PNE's record signing.

Heaven knows, we could do with a result away from home sooner rather than later. The Luton defeat aside, the Hornets' home form has been excellent, even if the results have disguised some less-than-convincing performances...but the regular beatings on our travels have made things appear blacker than they really are. You feel that a resounding, against-the-odds victory in a difficult away fixture would put a rather different slant on things.

Preston away, midweek. Not easy. Not impossible either, though.