Dizzying descent at Deepdale

The nagging feeling that the excellent score line and result against Swansea last weekend was more a freakish outlier than a turn in fortunes was confirmed just a few days later at Derby and hammered home at Deepdale as Town’s survival hopes increasingly rely on others’ ineptitude.

While defeat in Preston, and indeed, at Derby or Middlesbrough, is hardly surprising given results over decades, this doesn’t make these 3 reversals any more forgivable or the concern any less alarming. This is not to give credence to the idiotic idea that certain grounds are jinxed and affect generations of players.

The midweek display at Pride Park held no redeeming features and despite a fair amount of first half misfortune, neither did this latest away defeat.

Right up until the Lilywhites’ opener, at the midway point of the first half, Town had dominated play, created two decent openings forcing good saves and were denied 2 penalties by a referee who baffled and confounded the visitors all afternoon.

The first opportunity for the Terriers arrived after a bright opening (again) with Mbenza forcing a decent, if routine, save from the keeper from range. 

An uneventful period featuring good spells of Town possession, particularly down the left where Pipa, O’Brien and Holmes offered good combinations but little penetration was followed by the defining 5 minutes of the game.

First, Campbell was played through behind Preston’s defence and appeared to be bundled to the floor as he got in front of his marker. While the collision could have been interpreted as a simple coming together, Campbell was through and had zero incentive to fall and later in the half, Edmonds-Green was booked for making a similar challenge just outside the box.

If the benefit of the doubt could be given to the defender in that incident, the next penalty shout was much louder and more convincing. O’Brien raced in to the area to chase down a short back pass to the keeper only for the defender who made the errant pass to take two steps in to his path and completely wipe him out. 

This isn’t to say that Town, who have missed both penalties awarded to them this season, would have converted it or gone on to gain anything from the fixture, but taking the lead at that point, against a team who had yet to win at home in 2021, would have altered the whole outlook.

In open play, an excellent ball through by Sarr found Holmes who cleverly lifted the ball over the despairing legs of 2 defenders to another O’Brien surge only for Iversen to cut out any angles and block the attempt.

This proved to be the high watermark of yet another dismal away defeat as the promising opening disintegrated like bones in an acid bath. Movement stagnated, passing perceptibly slowed and errors began to accumulate.

Seasoned followers of the Terriers know that the promise of a bright start rarely translates in to points and Preston, largely passive in the opening stages, pounced.

Latching on to a mistake in the middle of the park, Evans played in Sinclair behind Sarr and though Schofield made a good point blank save the ball fell to Potts who struck a powerful shot goal wards which Sarr tried to keep out only for it to roll agonisingly in under his foot. To be fair to the big defender, he was in the right position again but could not add to the several last ditch saves he has made this season.

The hosts barely deserved their lead, and should have been behind but for a negligent referee, but the lift of a goal eased their own home demons considerably and they proceeded to run out comfortable winners by the end.

A poor final 15 minutes of the first half for the visitors, along with Edmonds-Green’s booking for a foul on the hosts stand out player in the first half, Gordon, prompted a change at half time which very probably doomed Town to their fate.

Though Rowe, who came on for Edmonds-Green, was far from responsible for the characterless mundanity which followed, and indeed was considerably brighter than most, the switch of Pipa to the right after a reasonably effective stint on the left seemed an over reaction.

The Spaniard had a dreadful second half but was far from alone as all semblance of togetherness and cohesion evaporated in a display as dispiriting as many of the others in this dreadful year.

Posing little threat, it was no surprise when yet another individual error exposed Town’s back line. Mbenza inexplicably tried to push the ball in to space behind a Preston player but, presumably, had not seen another Lilywhite waiting to collect. Within seconds, Preston had gone two up as Potts, who had struck the bar with a good effort shortly beforehand, set up Evans for a routine finish in the box.

Defeat was inevitable from that point, though Sarr should have done better when trying to divert an O’Brien shot following a corner when all alone in the box.

By this point, Holmes had been replaced by Phillips as Town changed shape from whatever they were in before to a new one which proved as ineffective. Again, the substitute tried hard and there is some promise but it is difficult to know how Phillips will develop as part of a team which inexplicably ceases functioning on a whim. Ditto for Scott High, on for Mbenza.

Further changes saw the first outing of Sanogo in place of Campbell and Stearman on for Keogh. The debutant looked reasonably energetic but it would be ludicrous to judge him in this abysmal context. 

Multiple substitutions failed to affect anything approaching change as Town failed miserably to rediscover any tempo and struggled to even hint at carrying threat. A final blow never seemed far away and it duly arrived.

As a Town corner broke down, Preston launched a devastating counter attack with 10 minutes to go. Barkhuizen was released down the left, pursued by Phillips, who laid a perfect ball for Sinclair to smash home in some style. In common with the second goal, the hosts showed how to attack with pace and purpose.

The comprehensive defeat leaves the club under great pressure. The coach is sitting on an appalling record in 2021 and one which very few Championship bosses would survive, the game against Birmingham is now elevated possibly beyond the mentality of these players and the unrest at the Chairman’s decisions is growing very loud.

It is difficult to see beyond a crushing single goal defeat on Tuesday night against a team who will employ the complex tactic of allowing Town futile possession, sitting back and waiting for the inevitable error. 

A coach searching for answers for a team bursting with frailty in March as disaster looms simply isn’t good enough. The injury excuse, once genuine when added to the disruption it initially wrought, is now gossamer thin. Genuinely committed teams would respond to the adversity rather than be crushed by it and enough time has elapsed for solutions to have been adopted and applied yet the exact same issues arise in virtually every game.

Another defining week in store.


Postscript;

My Derby report went in the bin. A lot of research was expended on Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the fire” in an attempt to make a point about Town’s decades of failure at Middlesbrough, Derby and Preston. Writing it was tortuous, but not as tortuous as reading it would have been so I spared you all!







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