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Football League Division Two, 07/08/04, 3.00pm
Preston North End
Kicking off
By Matt Rowson

We all like a moan when things go against us.

The kinda days when the light on the Langley Road/Clarendon Road crossroads hits red just too early for you to sneak through. When you notice that the milk's off after you've poured it all over your cereal. The days when shit just happens.

It's perfectly acceptable to mouth off in such situations precisely because nobody's to blame, nobody will take offence, your ire is directed either at inanimate objects (traffic lights - all bastards, obviously, but stick with it - and milk cartons, about which I have no strong feelings one way or another) or, as frequently, at Lady Luck.

So when Lady Luck deals you a favourable hand, it seems a little churlish not to acknowledge the fact. Such would appear to be the situation as we head into the new season, as for once Preston (A) does not find itself on the now traditional challenging-looking Tuesday night in November but on the first day of the campaign in early August. Hurrah.

Whereas a home opener would have pleased many, I'd argue that we couldn't have been given a better first tie than this one. If you don't make the long journey to Deepdale on August 7th then, mistimed summer holidays notwithstanding, you're not likely ever to make it. This is not inhospitable Burnley, but a decent away-day (even on Tuesday nights in November) with the attractions of the National Football Museum to boot.

So a long trek out of the way which, bearing in mind that Plymouth is a Tuesday night in April - three days after Burnley - and Sunderland is in February, we should be grateful for. Not only that, but we find our hosts in a state of no small disarray... beset by injuries already, one of which has scuppered Ricardo Fuller's Pompey move which would have brought funds into the club, and with Craig Brown's stewardship the target of considerable ire. When one contrasts David Moyes' bright, vivacious side with the unconvincing Preston team that we faced last season, it's not difficult to understand why. Pre-season performances have attracted criticism for a lack of creativity, pace and width... all is not well at Preston heading into the new campaign.

Andy Lonergan will be in goal; he made his League debut against us at Deepdale as a seventeen year-old in 2001 and appears to have replaced Jonathan Gould as first choice. Following the arrival of former Coventry deputy Gavin Ward in the summer, Gould has asked for a move. Former custodian Dave Lucas left for Sheffield Wednesday during the break.

The aforementioned injuries have played a part in forcing team selection, with the absence of fullbacks in particular appearing to demand the 3-5-2 formation that Brown has been adopting - although scepticism exists on messageboards as to whether a more popular 4-4-2 would have been fielded in any case.

The back three, should Brown stick to the formation fielded throughout pre-season, is likely to consist of Chris Lucketti, Youl Mawene and Claude Davis. Lucketti, the club captain, was voted Player of the Tournament in the Copa de Ibiza in which Watford secured their first European silverware (ha!) over the summer. Mawene arrived from Derby, where he was last season's Player of the Year, despite interest from Wolves and impressed in the weekend friendly against Blackburn. Imposing Jamaican Davis, who missed much of pre-season with injury himself, is likely to come into the side for Marlon Broomes, who is suspended having been sent off at Norwich at the end of last season. All things considered, the back-line appears to be the strongest area of the team, which makes you wonder why an interest in Hungarian centreback Adam Komlosi is being retained.

The wing-back positions appear to be the biggest problem for Brown, with natural options thin on the ground. Graham Alexander and summer recruit Callum Davidson were both described as "not risked" at the weekend, which implies that they could be back for Saturday but would go into the game without any kind of fixture or pre-season behind them. With the right-sided Tyrone Mears still recovering from a stress fracture, the right-sided berth is likely to go to one of a number of midfield candidates - Eric Skora, Alan McCormack or Omar Daley, none of whom seem suited to the role. The situation on the left is even worse, with either Eddie Lewis' attacking abilities reined in or a contract being offered to Sheffield Wednesday trialist Paul Smith, who convinced few in the Blackburn friendly.

Dickson Etuhu's fine game against us at Deepdale last season appears to be a misleading indicator of unreliable form; however with Davis needed at the back his position as the defensive midfielder seems secured, despite his limited distribution. The experienced Brian O'Neil is likely to play, as will long-serving Paul McKenna if he overcomes the hamstring problem that saw him limp out of Saturday's game... apparently a consequence of being rushed back too quickly from injury. If unavailable, Frenchman Skora appears the most likely alternative.

Up front, the first choice pairing would appear to be the willing but unprolific Richard Cresswell alongside Player of the Year David Healy. However Healy too limped out of Saturday's game with what looked like a calf injury; in his absence, and with Fuller still queueing for the advice of American orthopaedic guru Richard Steadman and Scot Simon Lynch also suspended, Andy Smith, a 130,000 summer signing from Glentoran, would come in.

So, all things considered, a surprisingly favourable start to the season, although perhaps we shouldn't get too carried away. After all, the last time we got this lucky on the first day of the season was when Freddie Payne scored a scissor kick against Sheffield United in 1995. After which, our fortunes rather turned for the worse...