17 November ~ Most football fans would not view a goalless draw at home to FA Cup opponents from the division below as any sort of success, but given recent events at Preston North End, last weekend's game against Southend will hopefully be seen as a turning point in a wildly fluctuating season. Pre-season hopes were founded on a quite remarkable standing ovation at the end of last season's final game, despite relegation already being confirmed. The manager Phil Brown's hands were clearly tied by a severe lack of funding.
Fans' aspirations appeared dashed by a home defeat to Colchester on the opening day, in which the defence give away four truly awful goals. Following a somewhat unfortunate draw at Scunthorpe, the team launched into a run of seven consecutive league wins – their best set of results for over 50 years – and all seemed set fair for an immediate return to the Championship.
However, the warning signs were there. The defensive frailties under previous manager Darren Ferguson had not been completely resolved, mostly notably when two 4-3 victories were secured in the first nine games. A wonder-save in injury time preserved all three points against Yeovil, while, after being two goals up inside ten minutes at Wycombe, North End went 3-2 down before two second-half goals finally secured the win. Shades of Kevin Keegan maybe, but not good for the heart or temper.
The slump since the end of September has been quite remarkable. North End picked up 22 points in their first nine matches, but have secured only a single point from their next seven league games. Goals have been leaked with frightening regularity – 18 conceded in the five games prior to last Saturday was the context that made a goalless draw seem an improvement and source of hope.
So where does this leave North End ahead of Saturday's meeting with Lancashire rivals Rochdale? Everyone at Deepdale is awaiting the return of leading scorer Neil Mellor, who has been out for the last seven games, and talisman Iain Hume, who has been especially missed during the last five matches. Young tiro Jamie Proctor completes the trio of strikers whose absence has coincided with the slide down the table, but he is still some way off recovery.
Even so, North End continue to score goals – only one blank in the league and only two in all – and the introduction of the German goalkeeper Thorsten Stuckmann seems to have settled the jittery defence. If early season hope and optimism are not to disappear along with British Summer Time, then wins (no matter how many goals against) are urgently needed. Martin Atherton