By Matt Rowson
You know it's a hardcore turnout when even bloody Fincham hasn't bothered...
One day we'll play Preston on a Saturday. Possibly. If that game's up at Deepdale, maybe our perspective of the ground will change. Until then, the picture of the stadium in the mind's eye will remain one characterised by darkness (it is never daytime at Deepdale), half-a-row per spectator in the away end, and cold. Oh, and the lingering memory of looks of disbelief from work colleagues (who really ought to expect these things by now) when you explain why you're taking the afternoon off...
There are similarities between ourselves and Preston that stretch beyond the fact that each club's stadium is an uncomfortable-looking mix-and-match of three new stands and one "with character". Both sides will have started the season reasonably confident of being able to stay in the division and knowing that a good season would mean being up there challenging for the play offs. Both sides have, however, been struggling to convert decent possession into goals and points. And both were, on this particular evening, missing their heavy artillery in attack, all of which might have lead one to expect a cagey encounter low on goalscoring opportunities.
One would have been wrong...
We could have lost this one in the opening five minutes. Wayne Brown looked much more comfortable at left-back on Saturday, but had an absolutely catastrophic opening spell here. The home side pushed forward down the left from the whistle, and a deep Eddie Lewis cross caught Wayne Brown tucked inside with the centrebacks; the ball dropped comfortably over his optimistic jump to where two Preston players were waiting on the flank. We were lucky to escape with a corner... but the fun wasn't over. The near-post delivery found Lucketti unmarked; his header was well-placed towards the top corner, but appeared to lack power allowing Pidgeley to claw it round the post. The next corner also went near post, Dixon Etuhu, who was to have an impressive evening, was narrowly beaten to it. Not seeing any reason to change a winning formula, Preston sent the third corner near-post again, and Cresswell met it on the run and again unmarked but headed it down into the ground and Pidgeley again leaped across to push the effort away. The fourth corner, again near-post, was met by Wayne Brown, who helpfully flicked it on into the box before it was scrambled clear.
We'd weathered the early storm, but there was no time to catch a breath. Watford broke quickly with the ball and Paul Devlin foraged away down the left before sending in a cross that narrowly evaded Paolo Vernazza at the far post.
Vernazza's form since coming back into the side has been his most consistently impressive since his injury in a stabbing incident two years ago; this evening saw him reach new heights with a quite bullish display in midfield. Seizing possession in the middle of the park he flew at the Preston goal with a positiveness that seemed to unsettle those facing him. He released Fitzgerald on the left who shot across the face when perhaps squaring the ball might have been the better option.
Shortly afterwards we came even closer... Ardley took a free kick the right midway inside the Preston half which appeared to be attacking the far post but veered away to the left flank where Brown was clearly expecting it. His fine cross found Fitzgerald unmarked on the penalty spot... a header either side of the keeper would have given us the lead, but it was straight at Gould who pushed it over.
Preston's early fire had been quelled, but we couldn't (yet) discount them completely; they came close again when Lewis cut inside Kelly on the Preston left and drilled a low right-foot shot which Pidgeley pushed around the post. The tide of the game was turning however, and we were well on top by the middle of the half. Devlin tested Gould again, scampering off on one of those increasingly trademark runs across the face of the penalty area in search of a gap to exploit before drilling in a low shot which his international team-mate saved comfortably.
Then Vernazza put in a cross from the left, Devlin's marker slipped and the winger was through; Gould saved superbly from his powerful shot, but shouldn't have been given the chance to.
Preston's attacking was looking increasingly ragged. I was reminded of some of our less inspired displays over the last couple of years with Gifton in the team when lumping the ball in his general direction and hoping for the best was too frequently used as a cop-out option. Preston were gravitating towards the same thing here, except that their big man Riccardo Fuller wasn't playing and so the lumped balls out of defence were increasingly drifting harmlessly through for Pidgeley.
Another key factor in quelling Preston's attack was an astonishing twenty minutes from Marcus Gayle, who not only regained his regal supremacy over the back line that was missing earlier in the season but appeared determined to make an arse of his opponent at every opportunity. Normally, the sight of a centre-back repeatedly dummying a striker with a clear run to goal behind him would provoke palpitations, but there was no danger of Gayle losing out in these encounters as David Healy evidently realised. Having been made a fool of yet again the Irish striker was extremely fortunate to stay out of the book as he lunged late and petulantly at the centre half as he sent a pass comfortably back towards his keeper.
On one occasion, Gayle took his imperious confidence with him into the Preston half, surging through the centre of the Preston midfield in a manner reminiscent of Colin Foster before breaking wide and sending a left-foot cross in inches from Fitzgerald's head.
Throughout all of this, a firework display was taking place nearby... close enough to be dominate the atmosphere with cracks as shots came in and whistles as we sent crosses into the box, but largely obscured from the view of the away end by the side of the stand. So it was with our attacking... the story of winning the battle for possession and not making the most of it is far from unfamiliar, and this was the spell of the match in which we were our most dominant. Unlike previous missed opportunities however, it was bad luck and bad finishing rather than an inability to create that proved our ultimate undoing.
Going into the break, Preston's attacking forays looked completely forlorn... Lewis played in Keane on the left of the box, but he sliced his shot hopelessly wide. Cresswell's aggression on the right saw him open a half-chance, but he skied his shot and dropped his head onto his chest. Nil-nil at the break but, almost implausibly given the opening, we were well on top and optimistic during the interval.
Preston shifted things around at half-time, bringing off left-back Broomes and dropping Eddie Lewis to full-back with young striker Pawel Abbott giving their line-up a much more attacking look. As in the first half they hit us hard at the start with Healy belting in a shot that went narrowly wide, but this time their positiveness paid off as within five minutes they had the lead, the substitute Abbott rolling a low shot past Pidgeley.
The home side were fuelled by their goal, and Healy again came close with a curling effort that Pidgeley got his glove to. Hearteningly, however, we kept at it and once again pushed the home side onto the back foot... although their heads never dropped to the same extent as in the first half, and there was always a threat when they broke forward.
With Watford pushing back the tide and beginning to build up attacks again, Bruce Dyer stripped off on the bench and was ready to come on. In a way, this would have been quite handy... we know that Dyer has more to his game than he's shown us already, and a relatively accommodating defence such as this one might have yielded a crucial, confidence-boosting goal. Nor had Fitzgerald or Webber had the best of games, but with the striker waiting on the sidelines the tables turned again...
Ardley played Fitzgerald in on the right and he appeared to be going nowhere, heading towards touch and away from the goal on the edge of the box. With an impressive turn of speed and thought, however, he swivelled quickly and drove the ball low and hard towards the centre of the box. Fortune was on his side, as both defender and goalkeeper were rooted in either surprise or deference to each other, leaving Webber to react quickly, nip in and stab home the equaliser.
The rest of the half was ridiculous. My approach to match reports differs from that of Mr.Grant... he has, over the years, honed an efficient shorthand to facilitate note-taking throughout the game. I really can't be arsed with all that, and tend to rely on memory and confirming the odd detail with people afterwards in favour of paying full attention to what's going on around me. It's an approach that's never really failed me before but I came hopelessly unstuck this evening. Such was the volume of goalmouth incident in the second half that I haven't the faintest idea in what order things happened or of much of the detail, but am just left with a slightly dazed feeling and a sense of disbelief that we actually lost the game.
The action was ceaseless, I don't remember looking sideways or concentration drifting for the entirety of the half. This was fuelled, in part, by bad defending, but more by both sides throwing themselves into attack and the play flooding from end to end.
Fitz came close again... Ardley's beautiful chip into the box met the striker on a diagonal run whose strong header went narrowly over. At the other end, Healy tried his luck with a low drive, and then Abbott brought an astonishing save from Pidgeley as he smacked a shot towards the top corner. Back in front of us, Fitzgerald found the ball loose in the box and drove in low and hard... but not precise enough, again permitting Gould to make an excellent stop. A great chance that one... the ball broke to Hand, who drove through a challenge before a block prevented him from opening his first-team account.
Preston's defence, which had been reeling, was now in chaos and once again we had a spell on top of the game. Jamie Hand, who's not looked terribly comfortable in a midfield three up until now, had his most convincing game for a while, foraging, digging out possession, providing an option. He still made a couple of mistakes to cede possession, but these were "good" mistakes... trying to play something other than the safe ball, just not quite coming off. He doesn't half remind me of Richard Johnson about ten years ago... all the signs are there, he has all the attributes to be an excellent midfielder (if he could learn to shoot...), the string just needs to be pulled a little tighter around the package.
The game drew to a close; Lee Cook came on to irritate Preston's right hand side, as did Bruce Dyer, finally, with a minute to go although he never got a touch. The game didn't die until right at the end... at no point were you thinking "well, looks like a point then". But the kick in the teeth in injury time we could really have done without... Healy capping an impressive display by taking possession from a quick free kick and driving home the winner.
There was a blackness of mood in the away end at the final whistle, albeit the side were given a deserved ovation... Elvis Mark's look of utter weariness summed up how most of us must have been feeling. Losing in this fashion's a choker anyway, let alone losing in this fashion with a long drive home.
For much of the trip back, I couldn't help but feel that my work colleagues were right. Two PNE fans lifted the mood briefly... an old boy in the back of the stand as we drifted off after the game ("You had yer chances, young man. Have a safe trip back...") and another gentleman at a service station ("You were robbed, pal"). Their good work was undone by a really bad decision to go down the M6 rather than across the A50... we took a will-to-live-sapping hour to get to the next junction and crawled into Watford at three this morning.
Fuelled by the benefit of a decent sleep, however, the world is not such a bad place. Whilst it's still never a good thing to play well and lose, I'm a lot more confident about our prospects than I was after the game against Cardiff a week ago. Our defeat owed a lot to bad luck this time, unlike at Cardiff, and it's much easier to believe that we're close to everything clicking into place.
Preston are far from the worst side we've faced, but they weren't that much cop either. This wasn't a long way from being the kind of result that justifies ostensibly ridiculous mid-week treks across the country. And yet Preston are now two points off the play offs.
Saturday confirmed that there are (at least) three sides significantly worse than us in the division. The Preston game offered further encouragement; that there aren't that many sides that are any better than us, and also that we're beginning to realise that...