On the eighth of September 1888, on the opening day of the Football League in England, Preston North End beat Burnley by five goals to two in their first match of ther season. It was the start of the year of The Invincibles, the Preston side that ran away with the Football League championship by eleven points. The margin was all the more remarkable for the twin facts that they only played twenty-two matches in that first, nascent season of league football in England and that, of course, teams only received two points for a win at the time. To put it another way, in their first season as a Football League club, Preston North End only dropped four points.
One hundred and twenty-two years on, Preston North End and Burnley resumed hostilities in the Championship in front of BBC television cameras last night. This is something of a secondary derby match for both of these Lancashire clubs. Burnley’s real ire is reserved for Blackburn Rovers, while Preston North End’s traditional rivalry sees them look towards the coast and Blackpool. Both of these rivals, however, are sunning themselves in the Premier League so Burnley and Preston have to make do with with each other for the time being. It’s an unsatisfactory situation and the empty seats at Turf Moor seem to indicate that this particular match hasn’t really caught the local imagination – the ground is only three-quarters full this evening.
It says something for the distorting effects of Premier League money and parachute payments that expectations at the two clubs are so different this season. Burnley are widely expected to challenge for a place back in the Premier League while Preston North End, who are the only of the traditional, “big” Lancastrian clubs not to have at least sampled life at the top table, have had well documented financial travails and may not be setting their level of expectation much higher than surviving in the Championship this season. Manager Darren Ferguson certainly has cause to be concerned at this early stage. Their sole league win this season came against another team for whom this season is likely to be an uphill struggle – Portsmouth – and it’s easy for a ropey start to become a habit as the tail end of summer turns to autumn.
Yet for the first eighty (yes, that’s eighty) minutes, Preston North End were in charge of this match as Burnley, who didn’t seem to have quite come to terms with getting back down to busisness after a break brought on by international matches last weekend, made enormously hard work of things. Chris Iwelumo gave them an early lead but this came against the general run of play and goals from Adam Barton and Keith Treacy gave Preston a 2-1 half-time lead that they thoroughly deserved. A win against Lancastrian rivals in front of live television cameras might just have proved to be the sort of kick-start that Preston’s season needs, but things don’t seem to be quite that simple at Deepdale, and the second half saw them hit the comfort zone before inexplicably throwing it all away.
The two sides spent much of the opening stages of the second half cancelling each other out, but with twenty minutes to play Preston extended their lead to 3-1 when Keith Treacy’s cross from the left-hand side was brilliantly volleyed in by Jon Parkin. This should, of course, have been enough to end the match as a competition but Burnley were offered a glimmer of hope with twelve minutes to play when Preston’s Billy Jones contrived to pick up a second yellow card for time-wasting. With the visitors now down to ten men, the complexion of the match changed again, and Burnley dragged themselves back into things with six minutes left to play when Iwelumo shot in from the edge of the penalty area to pull the score back to 3-2.
With this goal began the onslaught. Turf Moor is more than capable of being one of the loudest grounds that anyone can visit and this is never emphasised more greatly than when Burnley are chasing a game. Reduced to ten men and shorn of confidence by their tepid start to the season, the gaps in the Preston defence suddenly seemed enormous and with two minutes to play another lofted ball into the penalty area allowed Iwelumo to flick the ball past the Preston goalkeeper Andy Lonergan to bring the two sides level. To come back from two goals down with six minutes to play would have been quite enough of an achievement for Burnley, but Preston were now there for the taking and as the clock ticked over ninety minutes Jay Rodriguez headed in at the near post to complete the reversal of fortunes.
Quite where Preston North End go from here is anybody’s guess. They have three points from their opening five matches and sit in twenty-second place in the table at present. They need a win and they need one quickly, but the fragility of their self-confidence was more than evident in the events of the last ten minutes of this match. Burnley, meanwhile, have work of their own to do on the evidence of this performance, defensively at least. In Chris Iwelumo they have a proven goalscorer at this level but it was the second half introductions of Jay Rodriguez, Chris Eagles and Jack Cork that gave them a better, more effective shape. Will Brian Laws heed this and make changes for his team’s next match? He and his team had a lucky escape in this match, but they will need to improve if they are going to sustain a challenge for a quick return to the Premier League.