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Wadley's Verdict: Preston 2 Cherries 0
THEY say it’s grim up north. As chastened Cherries retreated to the south coast, they wouldn’t have disagreed.
Put simply, this was a game to forget, one of those rare recent occasions when nothing went right.
Dreadful pitch, uncharacteristic performance and a long journey home with no points to show for it.
But although the vocal minority might let you think otherwise, this sort of thing does happen. Even to the best.
The response to this unfamiliar display said more for Cherries’ achievements than any shortcomings.
That Cherries failed to fire now appears a cause of seismic shock.
Not so long ago, such an outcome might have been viewed as a run-of-the-mill event. Let’s put things in context.
That the defeat was met with such disappointment by those in red and black – and such glee by followers of the famous Lilywhites – is the most telling indicator of the Dorset club’s rise under Eddie Howe.
This was only Cherries’ second league defeat in 22 matches since Howe’s return and they remain top of the table. Disappointing, yes, but hardly the end of the world or valid reason to read the season its last rites.
“We have had it before and, no doubt, we will have it again,” admitted Howe, providing the voice of reason.
“We are a team still learning and developing and even the best teams have bad days.
“Even the best teams in the world lose from time to time. It is just making sure you keep them to a minimum.”
As goalkeeping coach Neil Moss tweeted: “The more accustomed you come to winning, the more disappointed you are when you lose.”
Followers of Cherries have become so used to toasting three points that they have probably spent the past four months merry. But, barring a reasonably bright opening, such cheer proved in short supply at Deepdale.
To be fair, the playing surface didn’t help. The bobbly pitch was to flowing football what a frozen lasagne is to haute cuisine. It was the same for both teams, of course, and North End made the best of it.
Even before the match had begun, it became apparent that the sacking of Graham Westley had galvanised Preston. The timing could not have been worse for Cherries.
Passion poured down from the terraces and it was mirrored on the field as North End scrapped, battled and produced the few moments of quality to seal victory.
Launching into tackles and throwing their weight around, Preston were a team unrecognisable from the one illustrated by the form guide.
While Cherries struggled to gain any sort of foothold or find their rhythm, the hosts grew in confidence with John Welsh an impressive influence in the centre of the park. Stuart Beavon was also a lively, bright performer in attack.
Those two combined on 19 minutes as Preston moved in front. Neat play by Welsh on the left flank paved the way for Beavon to eventually seize on a loose ball. The unerring 20-yard finish which followed underlined why Cherries once coveted his services.
Marc Pugh, still feeling the effects of illness, was withdrawn before debutant Marcos Painter made way at the interval as Howe switched to a three-man defence.
Shwan Jalal produced an outstanding save to deny Beavon before Cherries improved following a further reshuffle and the introduction of Matt Tubbs.
But Preston refused to buckle and while Cherries have virtually always unlocked the most resolute of defences, they could not find the key this time. Off-target attempts from Wes Fogden, Steve Cook and Shaun MacDonald were the visitors’ best offerings.
“What you have to do is try to learn from it and make sure you put right anything you felt was an issue,” said Howe. “We have cer tainly got the characters in the team to do that.”
Let history act as the guide here.
Cherries endured a similar experience at Walsall last month, losing 3-1. Their response: Five successive wins.
In December 2009, Howe’s Cherries were thumped 5-0 at Morecambe. Their response: Promotion from League Two.
A flag at the back of one of the Deepdale stands read: P.N.E WE ARE SUPERIOR. On Saturday, they were.
But don’t expect Howe to allow any other opponent such a boast any time soon.
Match facts and Echo merit marks
North End: Rudd, Keane, Wright, Huntington, Buchanan, Holmes (Garner, 76), Wroe, Welsh, Hayhurst (Monakana, 84), King, Beavon (Beardsley, 76). Unused subs: Robertson, Procter, Foster, Stuckmann (g/k).
Cherries: Jalal 5.5, Francis 5, Cook 5, Seaborne 5, Painter 5 (Fogden, h-t, 5.5), Ritchie 5, MacDonald 5.5, Arter 5 (Tubbs, 53), Pugh (O’Kane, 31, 5), Pitman 5.5*, Grabban 5. Unused subs: McQuoid, Fraser, Hughes, Allsop (g/k).
Referee: Geoff Eltringham (County Durham).
Attendance: 8,899 (including 426 away supporters).
Echo star man - Brett Pitman
This was not, by any means, a vintage performance from Cherries or their mercurial frontman.
But as his team struggled to find their usual attacking fluency, Pitman never stopped trying to affect the game.
Asked to play in numerous different roles, the striker often picked up deeper positions in a bid to get on the ball.
He attempted to spark something but it just didn’t happen for Cherries on a rare day to forget.