When I last went to see Preston North End play, things were looking pretty sweet – and they still are. PNE have continued their unbeaten run and remain second in the League One table, still positioned for automatic promotion to the Championship. Unfortunately, some lapses recently occurred in the form of three draws that really should have been victories; the subsequent lost points allowed other teams to narrow the once-sizeable gap, and at the start of today, MK Dons were just one point behind us. They would seek to capitalise on any error – and in this table, the difference between 2nd and 3rd place is a massive one. Avoiding the dreaded playoffs was still in our hands, but only victories would ensure that we stayed where we were.
Today’s game – hopefully the last home game of the season – was against Swindon Town. Fourth in the table, they could not realistically reach the prized second spot, but we could still expect them to put up a fight.
The difference in atmosphere from most home games was clear from before kick off. An unusually large audience had turned up – over 17,000 – but it wasn’t just that. There was more excitement, more chanting, more applause. Everyone knew how close PNE were to the prize if they could just keep winning. And with an audience like that behind them, I wondered if it was physically possible for them to lose this game.
Before kickoff, there was a minute’s silence for the upcoming anniversary of the Bradford City stadium fire; given how much noise there had been beforehand, the silence provided a particularly stark contrast.
Then the match got underway, and the PNE fans didn’t have to wait long for reassurance. It was only in the second minute that the ball was crossed into the Swindon box and fired over the keeper! The scorer was Joe Garner, currently top goalscorer for League One in 2014/15, and recently awarded League One Player of the Year.
But for most of the first half, the fans couldn’t rest easily. The Swindon players were very agile, having more possession and making a few worrying attacks on goal. We were desperate for PNE to widen the gap; when the Lilywhites began running the ball into the enemy box again, everyone around us rose out of their seats to see what would happen – though that attack came to nothing in the end. Things began getting a little ugly towards the end of the first half when the referee made some unpopular calls; Joe Garner was taking a particular battering from Swindon player Turnbull. Luckily, in stoppage time, this led to a free kick just outside the box. Paul Gallagher crossed the ball in – and who was right there to make it 2-0 but Joe Garner!
A good scoreline to end the first half on, but PNE have surrendered such leads in the past. However, the team started the second half energetically, with a run into the box by Jermaine Beckford, and a corner shortly afterwards. A few minutes later, Beckford fired at goal, only to hit the bar – and who was in just the right position to collect the rebound?
I’m beginning to wonder if Joe Garner has psychic abilities.
Perhaps a 3-0 scoreline didn’t quite reflect the state of play up to that point, but it certainly did for the rest of the second half. PNE didn’t actually score again, but they were by far the dominant side, with multiple chances: some saved by the keeper, and quite a lot going over the crossbar – Clarke tried an ambitious overhead backward kick at one point. Swindon, meanwhile, had about one proper shot on goal after Garner completed his hattrick.
So there we are. PNE did the job, and did it well; it ended up being far less tense that I had expected. Unfortunately, we were unable to secure promotion today as MK Dons beat Rochdale and maintained their one-point difference, meaning PNE have to win their final match against Colchester to be certain of finishing second. I can’t be there, but I’ll certainly be thinking of them. Come on, you Lilywhites.