4 April ~ Preston North End celebrate Sir Tom Finney’s 90th birthday this weekend against the background of an increasingly fractious relationship between the club’s fans and manager. After last weekend’s defeat at Hillsborough, Graham Westley publicly accused four (unnamed) players of leaking the team line-up and tactics to Sheffield Wednesday. Despite the attempts of chairman Peter Ridsdale to draw a line under the matter, the incident has only added to the debates over Westley’s stewardship at Deepdale. Phil Brown was dismissed in December, coincidentally following a dire goalless draw against Stevenage, and Westley took over from the popular caretaker team of Graham Alexander and David Unsworth.
There was immediate resistance from certain sections of the Preston support to Westley's appointment and this has only increased since. From day one, the new manager was critical of many aspects of the club, labelling the physio’s room a social club, condemning the players’ levels of fitness and commitment and publicly stripping Paul Coutts – arguably the club’s most talented player and saleable asset – of the captaincy due to his alleged poor attitude. One former player, now a highly respected pundit on local radio, summed up the situation thus: "It does no-one any good for a new manager to walk into the dressing room and immediately start throwing hand grenades".
In Westley’s defence, money is tight at Deepdale, with owner Trevor Hemmings keeping the club in existence whilst Ridsdale tries to cut costs. Even so, the standard of several players brought in by Westley has been heavily criticised by the fans, as has both the style of play and the results to date. Only two wins and six draws in the 15 games since Westley took over – Brown lost his job after two wins in 11 – have seen the club slump from second place in October and five points off the playoffs when Brown left to only six points from relegation. Crowds are falling alarmingly and with four of the top six to play in the remaining six games, fears of a first ever double relegation are reaching epidemic proportions around Deepdale.
Westley has certainly addressed the porous defence – but at the expense of any attacking threat, to vociferous disapproval at recent home games. Defeat to Brentford last time out led to some of the most surreal events ever seen at the famous old ground. The man of the match announcement was roundly jeered until the name of popular German goalkeeper Thorsten Stuckmann appeared on the big screen. When the fourth official indicated four additional minutes at the end of the match, he too was roundly booed before a chant of "This is pathetic, we want to go home" rang around the ground.
So where does this leave Preston North End and Graham Westley? Ridsdale has backed the manager and stated that the club need some stability after sacking three managers in three years. There are two acid tests of whether the manager can turn the club – and equally importantly the fans – around. Firstly, relegation has to be avoided; the consequences do not bear thinking about. Secondly he has to bring in a squad of players who can turn in performances that both win games and provide attractive football. Without these two elements, the future does not look bright for anyone associated with Preston North End. Martin Atherton