Having looked like real contenders for the play-offs for most of the season, Preston have struggled for momentum since the restart. Why do you think that is?
They weren’t in great form before the lockdown and it has been a continuation of that, really. I don’t think they are running out of legs, physically, but they look a bit short of ideas up front. At the time of speaking, they’ve played four games and Alex Neil has tried four players in the No 9 role, which looks as though they are trying to find a solution. Neil himself said there’s been a bit of a pattern emerging because this is the third year they’ve threatened to get into the play-offs and it could be the third time they aren’t going to do it.
In his first year in charge they did well, got themselves into a half-decent position at Easter, then lost three in a row, recovered to win four out of the last five and take 13 points from the last 15, and only just missed out on the top six by a couple of points. Before the March international break last season, only goal difference kept them out of the play-off places but then they came back and only won one in eight at the end of the season. It was the same under Simon Grayson the last season before Neil came in. They were doing alright until late March, early April and then had a slide in form to finish 11th. However well they start, it seems as if there’s something ingrained and they can’t seem to finish it off. History seems to be repeating itself, unfortunately.
They came within two points of a top six finish two years ago, but now have a significant amount of ground to make up in the games that remain if they want to get into a similar position. That said, given the fact they finished 14th last season, will Alex Neil will be satisfied overall?
No. They were briefly at the top of the table in November and have been in the top six for most of the season until recently, even with the three defeats before lockdown. Whatever the finances are like, having been in the top six for this long and for things to whimper out and them to not make the play-offs would not be seen as a success, even if they improve on last season’s league position. I think it would be seen as a big missed opportunity.
Joe Garner was the last player to score more than 13 goals in a season for the club, scoring 26 goals as the club were promoted from League One alongside Brentford in 2014/15. They are a rare find but do you think a goalscorer would help them kick on?
I think it would do, but where they fall down is the budget. They can’t afford to go and pay that £3, 4, 5 million that you probably need or the wages to lure that type of player because they’ve got a wage ceiling. They don’t shop abroad like Brentford do, for example, they tend to shop in the home markets for a bargain. To be fair to him, Jordan Hugill was very good and the year they sold him to West Ham for a club record fee he’d scored 11 goals, which was pretty good. Last year Callum Robinson scored 13 goals in all competitions playing as a left inside-forward, rather than the main No 9. In the previous two seasons they’ve lost their main source of goals, so that hasn’t helped the cause. When Robinson left, the player who replaced him was David Nugent, who is 35 and coming to the end of his career and so while they’ve strengthened in other areas of the squad, it’s just a striker they seem to lack.
With the season’s conclusion little more than a week away, who gets your vote for Player of the Year?
I’d say Daniel Johnson, who has scored 12 goals from midfield. He’s a clever player and has scored a few penalties as well but he’s played very well. He’s the leading goalscorer and that shows the problem, even if he has played as the advanced midfielder quite often. Ben Pearson has been very good and his discipline has improved as well, while Patrick Bauer has done well since signing from Charlton, though he’s taken a bit of a dip since the restart. No one has absolutely shone and there’s not been a regular 9/10 player, but I think Johnson’s the closest to that.
How are Preston likely to set up in west London?
It’s usually a 4-2-3-1 or a variation on that, like a 4-3-3. But that’s Neil’s go-to formation, especially down at Brentford where he’s not going to throw caution to the wind, I wouldn’t have thought.
North End have recorded just two wins at Griffin Park since 1951 but what’s your score prediction for their final trip to the stadium?
1-1. They beat Brentford 2-0 back at Deepdale in September and there was a bit of pressure on the Bees at that point, but they’ve recovered superbly.
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