I guess it’s written that some times in your life you feel like a prat (or maybe sometimes it's obvious that you should feel like a prat). I can’t believe I was recently musing about the notion of winning eight out of the last 10 to still claim a top-two spot, or at least be in the right frame of mind for the play-offs. Right now I have some sympathy with anyone who says something out of turn in the heat of the moment, something they may regret in the cold light of day. Because right now I don’t want us to get a play-off spot; we don’t deserve one, we’re not playing well enough to merit one, and something looked very rotten today – in terms of attitude, commitment and preparation of the team. After that performance I want us to go away and think about next season and what might be the core of a team to launch a proper promotion bid, rather than one continuing to flatter to deceive.
I hope Pardew is as angry and dismayed as the rest of us. I wish the team was too - maybe with Pardew. An incoherent line-up, players taking the field clearly not up for the task, and a shambles of a performance with nobody on the pitch having any idea what they were supposed to do and where there colleagues were supposed to be. To be outfought and/or beaten by Preston can happen. To be outpassed by them is odd. To be beaten by them without them having to play well is embarrassing.
One of the virtues of not having a season ticket is to move around the ground for different perspectives. But a screw-up over tickets for this and the WBA game meant that my location for this game – West Stand lower block A – was not exactly what I had in mind. However, it was up close and personal. Because of the ticket confusion I missed the first few minutes (which a friend assures me were the best of the 90). When I did arrive I saw a collection of players not fired up and seemingly confused about how they were to play the game. The first moment of note was Youga, now a parody of the exciting player who came back to us, almost gift Preston a goal. You can forgive a team many sins, but going onto the pitch in the wrong frame of mind is not one of them.
The first half passed in a blur. Sam was an early casualty, which was significant as Sinclair came on. I didn’t see him play against Bristol but he must have had a blinder by comparison because today he was dire. It may not really be his fault. We brought in on loan Halford, Cooke, Sinclair and now Lita (who for what it’s worth I thought fought well today). One common denominator is that between them they’ve not been playing much football. And they look rusty. Otherwise the first half was only notable for Preston’s goal. A touch unfortunate in that we had a player flat out in the spot from where their guy scored, but that’s not the point. Half the game passed without us creating a decent chance. OK, let’s be honest. Without us playing a decent pass.
Varney was replaced at half-time by Gray, on the grounds that he and Lita did not look like a partnership made in heaven. Had they looked good together on the training ground? That can be the only reason for thinking that they might be a combination. Gray’s link-up play did help to bring Lita more into the game in the second half, but Gray himself looks so out of sorts that the difference was marginal.
There was more purpose about our play, but no more conviction – or suggestion that this combination of unfamiliar parts could function as a team. So it came as something of a surprise when we equalised. A set piece and McCarthy slotted home. It all reminded me of the home game against Hull when Bougherra scored in a 1-1 draw, a game which at the time I thought was the pits. Then we were clueless and bereft of creativity, with Iwelumo chasing hopeless long balls forward, before Mills got himself sent off. But then we got a point. This time, having equalised with 15 minutes to go and the prospect of driving on to win despite playing appallingly, we contrived to give Preston back the lead. Hesitation in the centre.
Iwelumo came on for Halford to try to chase the game. I can’t say that the change made us less coherent. I’m not sure what could have done. When good footballers like Holland struggle in possession you know something’s up. So little movement when we had the ball, so many aimless, forced long balls, so many instances of players having no idea what their colleagues were doing. It’s not that the team didn’t try. Individually they did. Collectively they didn’t have a clue.
It’s not fair to give ratings for that game. I thought Youga and Sodje were both poor, Halford was made a scapegoat because he kept hitting it long as there was no alternative (or maybe he just epitomises the option we have taken instead of sticking with Moutaouakil). McCarthy, Ambrose and Lita I thought came out with some credit, Holland and Zhi just looked tired and harassed. And when ZZ loses his zip he is far less effective. Enough said. If I was being interviewed I’d say something I’d regret the next morning. So sod promotion, sod the play-offs, let’s start to build for next season.