By Matt Rowson
If I were in charge, one of the first rules that I'd introduce would be a minimum gradient for football stands. Much as scaling the heights of Deepdale's Bill Shankly Kop demands considerable effort, by the time we reach suitable seats (Preston stewards, as ever, relaxed on this issue) our anticipation is heightened and our cheeks are glowing in the winter sunshine.
A reasonable number of Hornets have made the trip up, although some have had longer journeys than others; local boy Clarke Carlisle, missing due to suspension, is in the stand as is Richard Lee who joins in most of the chants like a good'un (even the Aidy Boothroyd ones).
In the absence of Carlisle, Demerit and Mackay are partnered in the centre of defence; a defender with a tendency to wander out of position and another a little kinetically challenged against a mobile, intelligent forward line was a source of some trepidation during the pre-match chat. James Chambers appears to have failed the fitness test on his hamstring and Jordan Stewart steps in at left back, whilst a tactical switch sees Al Bangura coming in for Anthony McNamee, who drops to a bench which also features three of the League Cup youngsters. Bangura sits in front of the defence behind Mahon and Spring, with Young and Devlin supporting Marlon King from wide.
A well-observed minute's silence in remembrance of George Best is interrupted only by a brief and cautious attempt to instigate a minute's applause from somewhere in the back of the old stand to our left, above and behind which rows of terraces backed by a tall factory chimney remind us where in the country we find ourselves. Then the game starts. This had been regarded as perhaps our most challenging match of the current sequence with Preston on a bit of a run, even prior to learning of our unaccustomed batch of absentees. As such, the early fragility of the home side's defence is something of a surprise; if they can afford to leave a defender as accomplished as Youl Mawene on the bench then you don't expect something as optimistic as Demerit's deep ball from the right to cause chaos. As it is Young gets onto it and lays back to Gavin Mahon who thumps in a shot from the edge of the area that Nash tips over.
It's quickly evident that both Matthew Spring and, in particular, Gavin Mahon are going to enjoy the liberation they are afforded by Al Bangura's snarling presence behind them, and the pair of them galloping on from deep combine to create the opening goal. A fine, fine thing it is too for so many reasons, not a goal of great beauty but thoroughly exhilarating, from Spring's aggressive but immaculate sliding tackle to snatch possession midway inside Preston's half to Mahon's prescience in opting to flick the ball back to him rather than hit King, a more obvious target, to Spring's quick, sharp left footed shot from the edge of the area that sweeps into the bottom corner. We'd just been commenting that our formation didn't really lend itself to chasing a game, and that we didn't want to lose an early goal; as it is, we're a goal up and laughing.
Betty's later assertion that had we held on for five minutes we'd have gone on to win the game has a very believable ring to it, since for all that Preston were to create half chances as the game progressed, they never had us on the rack, and being a goal behind might have led them to commit numbers forward a little more. Instead, worst fears about our centre-back partnership are realised; Nugent does well to win a header in the box, but the straight ball down the centre of the pitch that preceded it should have been meat and drink to a half-competent defensive line. Instead, whilst there are half-hearted appeals to the linesman as Davidson seizes on the knock down to equalise, these are curtailed by the frustration being vented in Jay Demerit's direction, Al Bangura in particular waving fists and spitting bullets. David Nugent indulges in the latest fad of the footballing wanker, a snide round of applause in Demerit's face as he jogs back to the halfway line.
"One-nil and you f***ed it up!" pipe up the schoolkids to our right, a little prematurely since we're still very much in a game that now settles down into something that never slips below the absorbing without the probing and prodding exploding into anything particularly exciting. On twenty minutes Matthew Spring stumbles through a couple of challenges on the edge of the box before being felled; Ashley Young flicks a free kick into a dangerous area, forcing Hill to head over his own bar. From the second of the following corners, from our distance, a Preston defender appears to welly a loose ball towards his own goal but fells Malky Mackay with it (who falls like a great oak) before Mahon puts the rebound wide.
Down at our end, Preston are beginning to impose themselves and Demerit does well to cut out a through-ball from David Jones with a sharp jab of his left leg. As the home side enjoy more possession inside our half, Bangura comes to the fore... we're familiar with his, um, commitment in the challenge (in evidence here) and with the inconsistency of his passing (not exposed, since a lay-off is always available) but here we witness not only his accomplished reading of the game, snuffing out more that one Preston attack before it's blinked and seen the light of day, but also his leadership potential, shouting, pointing, organising, cajoling. And this guy is only seventeen...
Young shimmies down the left and sends in a cross that narrowly avoids Devlin attacking the far post. Gavin Mahon is booked for an impatient and silly tackle from behind on the lively Jones, and Preston have a strong end to the half... Nugent gets inside Stewart and then lays back but Spring, Demerit and a favourable deflection between them snuff out the chance. Jones slips another ball through for Agyemang but Foster is out quickly. His clearance unusually finds a white shirt rather than a red one and we see the best and worst of Jay Demerit within ten seconds... again, he doesn't think quickly enough and doesn't come out to catch Agyemang offside as the ball comes back to him, but a suitably robust challenge retrieves the situation. Not for the first time, I'm reminded of the theory that the reason that Robert Page was always so good at recovering tackles was because he put himself in positions that afforded him such a lot of practice...
The half ends with Marlon King bouncing through a series of robust challenges on the edge of Preston's box ("he's not made of the same stuff as the rest of us... some kind of really tough rubber," says Dad) before snatching at a shot that clears the bar by some distance.
At half time, one individual behind us seems particularly keen on a change in formation. "We need Macca on" is the repeated assertion, but it's difficult to see where this comes from. We're doing a reasonable job of containing a decent side and have been making chances. So far, so good.
The second half starts with our second booking, as Nugent catches Demerit out on the edge of the box and the American brings him down. The free kick is laid back and the ball flicked into the box for Davis to send an overhead kick comfortably wide.
Shortly after there's a free kick in front of us, as Bangura surges through and sways past Jones who brings him down wide on the right. Young, who is struggling to affect the game in open play but whose dead balls are reliably accurate, sends the kick into a dangerous area but some head tennis fails to generate a clear opening and the attack ends with Jay Demerit lobbing over from outside the box. Preston break quickly down the right; Agyemang does well to keep the ball in play and then gallops down the flank before sending a ball over to the far post where a heroic recovery from Doyley does enough to distract Nugent's attention from the matter in hand and his header goes wide.
As the middle of the half approaches, Preston enjoy their best spell and Demerit and Stewart both make important tackles in the box before Stewart becomes the second player of the afternoon to head over his own bar down at the far end. Marlon King is working incredibly hard for precious little reward up front, but Preston are a big side and our effectiveness in breaking is limited by the fact that we, effectively, are playing with two small target men in Devlin and Young.
Nonetheless we do break, and some neat footwork by Ashley Young on the left pre-empts a shot by King that is charged down by Graham Alexander, who is attracting bored boos from the back of the stand thanks to his Bedfordshire history but is in no small part responsible for Young's relatively quiet afternoon and would stake a good claim to man-of-the-match if we were remotely interested in Preston's players and considering them for the award.
Agyemang limps off to be replaced by Danny Dichio, and we're grateful that his best chance arrives before he's got his bearings, an unchallenged header drifting well wide. Dichio almost redeems himself with some good work down the right, squaring for Nugent who bundles the ball wide under pressure. Spring is booked for a savage challenge on Brian O'Neil, who being Brian O'Neil might, one suspects, have done something to provoke such attention, before hopes are briefly raised of a third Dichio red card against the Hornets in eighteen months as he swings an elbow at Demerit, but escapes with a yellow.
As the game draws to a close, both sides are still creating chances. A fine corner from Young finds Malky Mackay (who, it has to be said, takes some stopping when he decides to win a ball) whose heartfelt header beats Nash all ends up but is headed out from under the bar by Alexander, who recovers to block King's bobbling follow up shot from a narrow angle. Up the other end and Mackay makes a significant contribution again to rob Dichio as the ball bounces ominously.
McNamee comes on for Devlin as we switch to 4-4-2 with Spring wide on the right and Ashley Young up front. We win a free kick next to the touchline just inside our half... Ben Foster is appointed to take it, and one suspects we might see more of this as his delivery is immaculate, finding Mackay's forehead and thence onto the foot of Spring, who does well to execute a controlled volley under challenge but not well enough to prevent it from clearing the bar.
Preston make their final break, and with Nugent rather than Dichio powering through hearts are in mouths, but Foster is out quickly to smother the chance and the game ends.
A decent away point, all things considered - you've got to be a little frustrated at the feebleness of the goal conceded, and certainly we had chances to win the game, but the home side did too. The formation, one suspects, will be dusted off and brought out again whenever a central defence needs shielding or a midfield flooding - we certainly need to work on supporting the more isolated wide and attacking players when employing it, but in Al Bangura have someone ready made for the shielding role.
Two away points in a week - the point at Leicester in particular looking like even more of an achievement in the context of their victory against Sheffield United today - and our unbeaten run extended to eight league games. Our next two outings are at home to teams in the bottom six... the sort of game that genuine promotion contenders really ought to be winning.