Defeat on Saturday at Sheffield Wednesday confirmed what most that have been watching them play all season had been long suspecting: that hopes of a swift return to the Championship at the end of this season were little more than pie in the sky, but that the possibility of a second successive relegation still looms, distant yet ominous on the horizon. The manner of the teams defeat, coupled with the post-match comments of manager Graham Westley and rumours of what may have happened prior to the match will have left the clubs supporters will a feeling of foreboding that a new set of problems is set to manifest itself at a club that has had a bumpy ride over the last couple of years or so.
This season was supposed to be one of regeneration for the club, following the sweet kiss of relegation at the end of last season. Yet in a competitive division, Preston North End has found that relegation of itself doesn’t necessarily bring the clean sweep required to revive its fortunes. That was supposed to come with the arrival of a new manager, Graham Westley from Stevenage, yet for all of Westleys achievements in getting that club from the Blue Square Premier to League One whilst seeing of Newcastle United in the FA Cup for good measure, he seems to have been unable to bring much consistency to a stop-start season and has over the last couple of months seen any last hopes of somehow sneaking promotion fade from view since he took control.
Following Saturday’s defeat, North End sit in sixteenth place in the League One table, just six points above the relegation places and with only three wins since Westley took over manager of the club in the middle of January. Even this, however, pales in comparison with the manner of Saturday’s defeat and the rumours of what happened before and after the match at Hillsborough. Westley has stated that the teams team line-up was leaked to Wednesday by four of his players, and this claim has subsequently been backed up by chairman Peter Ridsdale, although Ridsdale states that he doesn’t believe that there was any malice behind it. His comments, however, are somewhat disingenuous in that much of the damge to come from this story comes from the fact that it exists at all rather than the motives behind it.
Sheffield Wednesday won the match by two goals to nil, and it could be argued that the leaking of such information would make little difference in any case – indeed, perhaps the most common response to the reporting of Saturdays incident from supporters of the club has been along the lines of, “Tactics? What tactics?”, which is hardly a ringing endorsement of Westleys eleven weeks in charge of the club in itself. That this should have happened, however, can only be regarded as a negative, having created a wave of publicity to hit the club that may only cause distraction at a sensitive time of the season. Preston’s next three games are against Milton Keynes, Stevenage and Huddersfield – all difficult matches in a competitive division – and if they fail to take any points from those matches, they could find themselves looking squarely over their shoulders at those just below them in the table.
Westleys own comments on the matter betrays the occasionally bizarre way in which he acts as a manager. Many years ago, whilst the manager of Farnborough Town, he changed the name of the clubs stadium to The Aimita Stadium, with “Aimita” being an acronym for “Attitude Is More Important Than Ability”. What the leaking of the first team line-up and tactics to the opposition shortly before two sides are due to meet says about the attitude of the team that Westley is currently trying to manage doesn’t, perhaps, merit thinking about too closely, his ocmment that, “When you’ve got a number of agendas within a club – and I’ve said since I’ve been here that that’s the case within the playing squad here – this sort of thing happens and it’s not the first time that something’s happened that’s surprised me” will quite possibly alarm all supporters of this club. After all, if the manager can’t control his dressing, then who can?
All of this leaves us with a feeling of great unease around Preston North End at a time that the club can ill-afford such negativity. To an extent, it doesn’t even matter whether this leak was malicious, who did it or what the ramifications of it were or might have been. What matters is that a club that was in the Championship last year may be sliding towards League Two, and that the replacement of Phil Brown, who took the team down from the Championship at the end of last and was relieved of his duties a couple of weeks before Christmas, seems to have been a failure. The responsibility for all of this ultimately lays with the management of the club, from Ridsdale and Westley down, in that they must ensure that the players are sufficently well-disciplined to not put the club in this sort of position in the first place.
Westley took the decision to very publicly and extremely vociferously decry his players for what happened on regarding the Sheffield Wednesday match and he has been backed by his chairman. Rather than having had the effect of deflecting blame from themselves, though, all that has happened from this very public airing of the clubs dirty laundry has been that club has been left to look rather silly and divided, and the supporters have been left embarrassed. Perhaps Preston North End’s form will pick up, and even if it doesn’t relegation is still only a possibility rather than a likelihood. At the time of writing, however, there is a feeling that the left hand at this club doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, and that this is, perhaps, a reflection of a club that was aiming for the Premier League just three years ago and may already be facing a battle to avoid a drop into League Two.
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