Like Marmite, the Football League Play-Offs have always divided public opinion. There are those who revel in the unmatched drama and tension that the three-game, post-season soirée, whilst its detractors point to an injustice that a side that missed out on automatic promotion by a single victory (Sheffield United) should be forced into a two-legged fixture with one who scraped into the top six thanks to a missed penalty (Preston North End).
Preston were the sneak team of what is fast, and frustratingly, being labelled as “The Regular Season”, they landed in the Play-Off places thanks to a late surge from themselves, coupled with a macabre collapse from Cardiff- including a six goal thrashing at Deepdale.
Although they eventually finished just six points shy of Sheffield United in third, and just nine short of the automatic promotion slots, they know how fortunate they are to be in contention. Had Ross McCormack converted a spot kick to give Cardiff a consolation in their half-dozen reverse in Lancashire, it would be the Bluebirds who were hosting the Blades this evening.
Of course ifs buts and maybes are what football grievance is based on- a trawl through any tabloid paper in the aftermath of Chelsea’s latest Champions League hard luck story will confirm this- and as it is, so it was Preston v Sheffield United at The ‘Dale.
Both managers were schooled as understudies for more high profile figures- Alan Irvine spent five years as number two to David Moyes at Everton prior to his appointment at Preston, whilst Kevin Blackwell’s early career post-playing was played out very much in the shadow of the considerably less self-effacing Neil Warnock but now, in differing but no less impressive circumstances, the bridesmaids were in a position to catch the bouquet.
A quick glance at the career trajectories of some of the players involved in this clash suggests that these sides would need either a major overhaul of playing staff, or some serious team cohesion, or both, if they were to survive the Premier League minefield. The list of former clubs featured Crewe (Billy Jones), Chesterfield (Jamie Ward), Rotherham (Chris Sedgwick), Bury (Paddy Kenny), Peterborough (Sean St. Ledger), and York City (Jon Parkin), with top flight experience present in only a handful of players- Chris Morgan, Neil Mellor, Darius Henderson- and with less than a handful of success. Indeed, United’s two full backs- Kyles Naughton & Walker- possess less than fifty senior appearances between them.
Nevertheless, Blades fans have plenty to be optimistic about following a 1-1 draw that, if not pulsating, was impressively contested. Especially for a first leg, where ties can often be lost, but rarely won. Had on-loan Craig Beattie made better use of two gilt-edged chances in the second half, they would be trekking back across the Pennines tonight with a healthy advantage for Monday night’s return fixture at Bramall Lane, even allowing for the redundancy of away goals.
As it is, the scoreline flattered the home side. They had already looked a yard short of United’s early pace by the time St. Ledger- easily North End’s best player on the night, and one who you would suspect will interest Premier League scouts regardless of whether his side earns promotion- had chested down a Jones free kick that had skimmed off the head of Nick Montgomery, to beat Kenny with ease from six yards.
United were far from disheartened, Stephen Quinn, neat and tidy in midfield throughout, forcing a smart save at his near post from Andrew Lonergan after a delightful scooped pass from Brian Howard. But despite their more impressive use of the ball, hindered at times by the lumbering and patently semi-fit Henderson in attack, they were fortunate not to find themselves two down by the interval, with Parkin cracking a header against Kenny’s left hand post from point-blank range. The burly striker- aptly nicknamed “The Beast”- wore a look of regret that would come to make sense as the game wore on.
If the Blades were unlucky to find themselves behind at the break, with their intelligent midfield trio of Howard, Quinn & Greg Halford, and youthful full backs impressing particularly, they did not have to wait long to be on level terms. Straight from the restart, Howard arrived to superbly guide home Jamie Ward’s centre with a left foot volley on the stretch from twelve yards after Lonergan had bravely saved at the feet of Henderson. It was typical of the player, an excellent technician who has shown himself to be a man for the big occasions in his time with Barnsley, and was richly deserved on the balance of play.
This balance was to tip further in the visitors’ favour as the second half wore on, with Preston’s wide players- Sedgwick & Ross Wallace unable to offer much going forward, whilst their physical but inert strike-duo of Parkin & Mellor found life tough against arguably the best centre half pairing in the league in Chris Morgan & Matt Kilgallon. When chances arrived, they tended to be around Lonergan’s goal, with the Preston keeper relieved to see sub Beattie- introduced for the limping Henderson, who has an Achilles problem and is a doubt for the second leg- blaze horribly over the bar after a fine break by Quinn down the left.
Howard was next to try his luck, a left foot strike of immaculate purity from 25 yards that Lonergan batted away one-handed, whilst Morgan also drew a save with an ambitiously angled strike. But the big chance was to fall to Beattie again, as he beat the offside trap to latch onto Halford’s pass down the right and, with Howard and Arturo Lupoli screaming for a simple pull back in the centre, the Scotsman sidefooted against the thighs of Lonergan, earning himself what is sure to be a frosty reception from his better-placed team-mates.
It finished level, with neither side willing to accept or concede advantage. Understandable considering the nerves and drama that inevitably filter into such fixtures, but Preston will certainly be the nervier of the two sides.
Ten away defeats this season dictate that the home leg was always going to be of significance for them, and the manner of their own performance will have given Irvine a few worries. They have some quality- St Ledger & Lonergan have had stellar seasons and continued here, whilst Parkin’s presence & Wallace’s left foot are impossible to ignore, but too often here they lacked composure and quality in possession, and found themselves second best to a United side that boasted greater energy and intelligence.
For Blackwell, he indicated he was happy to have the tie in their hands going into the second leg, but he will hope that they don’t come to regret the missed chances of the second half and, with injuries sustained by Henderson & Ward set to add to his woes, will pray that his side finds a killer touch in time for the second leg. Otherwise, the signs are good, Howard is a class act, Morgan & Kilgallon have proven that they can handle Preston’s front two, and in Naughton, Quinn & Walker they possess three academy products who look very much at home at this level, perhaps higher.
Its Millwall/Leeds at lunchtime, then Burnley v Reading tomorrow night, followed by League 2’s second legs on Sunday then off to Bramall Lane on Monday for the second leg. Better than just sending the top three up isn’t it???