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02/03: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 04/03/03, 7.45pm
Preston North End
By Matt Rowson

One of the enduring characteristics of football's soap opera is the tendency for storylines to be rehashed. Sixteen years ago, Watford lost an inspirational manager (albeit only on sabbatical, as it turned out) and simultaneously a number of key players. The void was huge; seamlessly refilling it would have been as great if not greater an achievement than the original task. Choked at the turn of events, little time or patience was permitted to the manager's replacement, who oiled the slide into gloom with some depressing and baffling decisions.

Preston North End are undergoing just such a transition. After a hugely impressive first season back at this level two years ago, PNE were beaten by Bolton in the play-off final. Cracks around the edges were evident as early as the start of last season as Preston failed to win in their first five games amid stories of what is generally referred to as "dressing room unrest".

Jonathan Macken was the first to leave following protracted faffing about that lost the striker - injured pretty much ever since - the support of the Deepdale crowd. Tuesday night marks the anniversary of his departure for Maine Road. David Moyes, crucially, left a month later to take over from Walter Smith at Everton and when captain Sean Gregan was finally allowed to move to the Hawthorns in the summer after another interminable will-he-won't-he bit of nonsense, Craig Brown was left with a job on his hands.

Consensus, even allowing for the disquiet that will always accompany a rebuilding programme, is that he's making a bit of a pig's ear of it. Preston are languishing in the soul-destroying purgatory that we remember only too well from last season, one of a handful of clubs in this ludicrous division neither with realistic play-off ambitions nor facing a serious relegation threat. Brown wasn't helped when Jamaican striker Riccardo Fuller, an early talisman with eleven goals in twenty games, limped out of the season in November. Fuller's replacement, signed from Basel in the transfer window, is Greek-born South African International George Koumantarakis. Top scorer in the Swiss league last season, the 6'4" striker who looks like he should be a bass player in a grunge band has so far appeared cumbersome and ineffectual, the Trevor Senior of his generation.

In goal for Preston will be Jonathan "Son of Bobby" Gould, a transfer-window recruit from north of the border in what one suspects may be an enduring theme if Brown is around for long enough to develop one. He has displaced David Lucas to the bench, while Lucas' one-time rival Tepi Moilanen has joined Hearts. Andy Lonergan, who has still only made the one appearance for the Lilywhites (against us at Deepdale two years ago) is on loan with Blackpool, who are no doubt giving him a warm welcome.

Preston's defence is solid and sturdy but badly lacking a bit of pace. Captain Chris Lucketti, who is developing a reputation for impressing in struggling sides having been relegated with Bury and Huddersfield, should play alongside Michael Jackson, a scorer in this tie last season albeit in the wrong net. Northern Ireland international Colin Murdock, on the way back from injury, is another option here.

The form of Graham Alexander on the right has dropped alarmingly this season, although any suggestion that this coincided directly with his involvement in the Scotland squad would be purely speculative. Rob Edwards, another experienced campaigner, is still hanging in there on the left although Marlon Broomes should be back from injury to contest the spot on Tuesday. Twenty year old Tyrone Mears is an alternative at right back, but Adam Eaton is on the verge of joining Mansfield.

In midfield, the sometimes undirected energy of Dickson Etuhu remains important - he's been out with an ankle problem, but again is likely to be available on Tuesday. If picked, he would probably play alongside another newish Scot Brian O'Neil, who joined Preston having settled his contract with Derby. He has looked tidy but, again, slow in his outings so far. Paul McKenna is the other chief candidate in the centre although the experienced Mark Rankine is still around and young Irishman Michael Keane is another on his way back from injury. Brian Barry-Murphy, eternally someone that I can't think of anything to say about in Preston previews, has joined Sheffield Wednesday and will presumably have (had) a point to prove this weekend.

Lee Cartwright, another who has been around for a while, should play down the right with United States international Eddie Lewis, Brown's summer World Cup recruit, recently spluttering into some form after a slow start to his Deepdale career on the left. Lewis had previously spent three seasons achieving very little at Fulham. Frenchman Eric Skora is an alternative in the wide positions.

Up front, Preston look a little starved of options. Brown is likely to persist with Koumantarakis, citing the need for him to regain match fitness, and so we are likely to see him alongside Richard Cresswell, probably Preston's greatest threat albeit one who tends to try to do an awful lot on his own. David Healy, winning friends on loan at Norwich before he limped out of their game in midweek, had not been in convincing form since Macken's departure. Whilst Brown appears unable to make up his mind whether he wants him back or not, Norwich are rumoured to have made a cash offer. Simon Lynch, on loan from Celtic, is another alternative.

Cup Quarter-Final or no, there's something slightly implausible in the fact that Preston are likely to attract barely half the audience of their knuckle-dragging Lancashire neighbours at the weekend. Preston had lost their previous five away games (prior to Saturday's trip to Sheffield Wednesday) and should therefore be there for the taking. Like Walsall, however, they are plenty good enough to upset us if we're off our game. Or in any way distracted.