Can Preston North End pull off the greatest of escapes?

Three weeks ago, anyone suggesting that Preston North End’s Championship status was anything other than toast would have gained at least a few mysterious looks and possibly one or two questions relating to their sanity. 13 points was the gap separating the Lilywhites from the relative nirvana of 21st place and although they had two games in hand, these tend to be of little significance when your last win was 14 matches ago on December 11th and losing has gone beyond ‘habit’ status and become second nature. The improvement in performances under Phil Brown had not borne fruit in terms of victories, and although draws had been achieved against the likes of Queens Park Rangers, Norwich City and Nottingham Forest, the winless run under the new manager’s stewardship was now eleven games and counting.

Then payday came on March 15th at Glandford Park, as Preston ran into a truly woeful Scunthorpe United side who would part company with manager Ian Baraclough the following day. Upon realising the scale of the threat (or lack of) posed by their opponents, those in white began to believe that this was the night for a much-needed three points to be taken. Goals from Billy Jones, Iain Hume and Keith Tracey in a 10-minute blitz just before half-time put them in command at 3-0. The rest of the game was a cruise, and there was just the faintest glimmer that something may happen if a run could be put together.

This sense of optimism drove on the same players as they entertained Coventry City four days later. Nathan Ellington, once a highly-rated prospect and something of a forgotten man in recent years, smashed in a last-gasp winner and now the gap was down to eight points. However, these two victories had been against teams in wretched form, and a Swansea City side challenging for promotion to the Premier League would surely provide a stiffer test of any revival and its credentials? That they did, but in Hume, North End have a supporters’ cult hero who will also strike fear into the opposition at this level. His late goal secured a third straight victory, and it would appear that they are finding a way to win, just as they were contriving to lose earlier in the season.

The odds would still be against their survival, partly because of the trips to Reading, Millwall and Ipswich Town that still await North End, but also due to the excellent home form of Dougie Freedman’s Crystal Palace. Making up an eight point gap on a side who will get something at least every other week is a tall order, and it will mean that the performance levels of the last three games will need to be sustained for a further eight for North End to have any chance of survival. However, the growing sense of belief at Deepdale that it can be done will soon be matched by anxiety from rivals peering over their shoulder if current form continues. One gets the feeling that this is a long way from over, and may still go to the last day of the season.

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