Preston North End 3 Leeds United 1
Blimey, every game we play these days is a little cameo of the whole season; last night at Deepdale was our season in a nutshell.
When the team was announced eyebrows lifted, but seeing Grot, Roofe and Ekuban on the pitch all at the same time had our juices stirring just a little bit, at least it did for me. We know the team is being dictated by injuries and suspensions and we know Heckingbottom is still getting to know what resources he has at his disposal but there was an intriguing unknown about how this particular blend of youth and attacking intent would pan out. And by half time there was a nodding acceptance that, actually, we’re not as bad as all that after all and this, supposedly, promotion chasing Preston side looked no better than we did! Even the much maligned Kalvin Phillips suddenly morphed into something between Ronaldo and James Milner as he cleverly lifted the ball over a defender’s boot, raced around him and smashed the ball across the face of goal where Kemar Roofe did the thing we’ve wanted him to do much more than he generally has – get in that poaching position in the six-yard box. Whatever we say about Heckingbottom at least he didn’t resort to playing Roofe out wide like his predecessor insisted was the thing to do.
At the back we had Bailey Peacock-Farrell (another Heckingbottom choice of course) growing even more into his role as our last line of defence and with a minimum of fuss he dealt with anything Preston could muster. I love the way he pulls out a world class save and then nonchalantly strolls to pick up the ball like he’s playing ball on the local park. Caleb Ekuban was looking lively and Leeds were picking his runs out and he was hitting the target. Stuart Dallas was overlapping and crossing the ball and finally looking like the winger he is supposed to be. It all looked pretty good thank you very much and they got a tremendous reception from the usual band of Leeds fans on the Bill Shankly Kop – a wonderful place to watch football from by the way. Oh life felt good!
Quite what happened to us in the second half I have no idea but I guess we’d been lulled into a false sense of security in the first half just as we were after nine games of the season when we joyfully turned up at the New Den expecting to put one over our old enemies from Bermondsey having beaten everyone else. It was ironic that Leeds were on the attack and looking good for a second goal as Preston, much like Fulham the other day after Caleb’s bad miss, raced down the other end with Leeds trailing in their wake. There was a sort of inevitability really that something would now go wrong.
But it’s not luck and it shouldn’t be inevitable; the first issue is that we have too many players playing in false positions; Vurnon Anita is not a full back despite having played there many times for both us and Newcastle in the past. He is not a full back and therefore Billy Boden didn’t have to do much to skin him. Anita should probably have then trusted to Bailey to, err, bail him out, but instead Anita pulled his man down. Penalty, 1 – 1 and you could actually see shoulders drop in blue shirts all over the pitch. It was like we’d all been hypnotised in that first half to believe we were a decent outfit. Now, someone had snapped their fingers and we were all awake again and realising that this was no dream this was back to reality; our players are, in general, naïve, soft, not intelligent enough and way, way short of confidence. Everyone inside Deepdale knew it was then just a matter of time before Preston realised all this and merely applied the necessary huff and puff to see us collapse like the proverbial house of cards.
The second goal came so quick that Leeds didn’t even have time to regroup even if they had the willpower to do so, which they didn’t. A long deep cross from the right, a near post header and we were a goal down having been a goal up only 180 seconds earlier. In the lead up to the second Preston goal, Pontus Jansson was, not for the first time this season, mysteriously prone on the ground while a football match was still going on all around him. Now I’m not going to jump to the same conclusion that many have – that this was either Pontus being a drama queen with a nothing injury or that he thought he could con the referee to stop the game – but for me, the fact he could get up afterwards, albeit looking groggy, suggested that any real man would have been battling away regardless; think Terry Butcher with his blood stained head bandage… The episode with Pontus just reinforces my view of our mentality and physicality; we are soft.
Leeds plugged away looking for an equaliser but didn’t really come close and then we shot ourselves in the foot again. Dallas gets caught in possession, the ball is moved forward quickly by Preston to their left wing, Vieira is found at right back for some reason and he’s not good enough to prevent the cross and there’s Browne with a glanced header for 3 – 1. Game over. Yes, this all felt like a miniature Leeds United season; Hope, expectation, joy, inadequacies exposed, confidence gone, errors a plenty, despair. It’s been like this since we came up from League one.
The fans called “Orta Out!” last night and I have to say I’m of the opinion that, if anyone should take the blame for this season, then it should be him. His success rate with all the recruits he’s brought us has not been good enough and as Director of Football the whole football side of the club has turned into a shambles. I’m still not ready to ditch Heckingbottom though and I don’t see that last night justifies that any more than any recent game; we just don’t have enough quality in the squad, even when everyone is available, we have to bring in better quality this summer for Heck to work with and then let’s judge him on that; would Mick McCarthy really get more out of this squad as it stands? I doubt it, Ipswich have not exactly excelled in the Championship these last five years have they?
Preston Leeds Utd
Possession 51% 49%
Shots 17 9
On Target 7 5
Corners 9 9
Fouls 14 10