16 April ~ Just 705 days ago, Preston North End faced Sheffield United in the second leg of the play-off semi-final for a place in the Premier League. Less than two years later, both clubs prepare to meet at Deepdale as the bottom two clubs in the Championship and almost inevitably facing life in the third tier. So what has gone wrong at Preston since that day in May 2009? North End had unexpectedly sneaked into the play-offs by winning their final four games, pipping Cardiff to sixth place after a 6-0 victory at Deepdale. Alan Irvine had saved the club from relegation the previous season and, despite losing out to the Blades, hopes were high for 2009-10.
Although form to the turn of the year was mediocre, many fans were shocked when Irvine was sacked less than 24 hours after yet another unfortunate defeat at Bramall Lane in December. Rumours of who was responsible for his demise and why soon began to circulate and certainly did not abate when Darren Ferguson was appointed in January last year.
Despite a win in Ferguson's second match, form deteriorated as it became clear that attack at all costs was to be the new approach ("tactics" would be too strong a word). Each manager had 23 league games in charge, with Irvine's reign garnering 29 points, while his replacement collected 25. However, the team were now leaking goals while not increasing their tally at the other end. Solid if unspectacular under Irvine, North End were now much too open and particularly prone to surrendering the lead.
Then 2010-11 brought in an era of harsh financial reality under new owner Trevor Hemmings (who coincidentally was the winning owner of last week's Grand National and is a close friend of Ferguson senior). Youth became the byword, but at times excessively so. Doyle Middleton (unheard of even among the club's own media staff) became the club's youngest ever player in a League Cup tie at Stockport that featured six teenagers in the starting line-up and two more on the bench. League form was poor, with only one win and three points from the first seven games. A tumultuous night at Leeds only served to paper over the cracks, while at the same time illustrating exactly how Preston approached games under Ferguson junior. A goal up in five minutes, North End conceded four times before pulling one back for a 2-4 half-time scoreline; a Jon Parkin hat-trick saw North End triumph 6-4 by the end of a quite surreal game of football.
Sadly this did not herald a new dawn and Ferguson was gone after his 22 games had gleaned only 19 points. Under Phil Brown, previously demoralised and underperforming players have regained their confidence and commitment but, in all reality, too late to stave off relegation. A draw today will effectively relegate both clubs, while a win is only likely to delay the inevitable, such is the gap to Crystal Palace. What the immediate future for both clubs will be, who can tell? The one major difference between them is that at least Preston will go down with hope for the future, something that seems sadly lacking over the Pennines. Martin Atherton