For the second time inside a week, the Baggies are playing catch up having to watch Leeds United move above them in the Championship table by virtue of playing, and winning, their fixture in advance. On Monday, Albion have the opportunity to regain top spot when they face Preston North End at Deepdale.
That fact, of course, is ignored by most of the national media who have been quick to crown Leeds United as champions-elect now that they are back on top. Admittedly, it was an impressive performance and, for once, result from Bielsa’s team, but it does seem a little short-sighted to ignore the team that may very well replace them on Monday evening.
The size of Leeds’ victory does mean that Albion need their fifth successive win to move back to the summit, which will be no mean feat given that the only team to beat North End on their own turf this season is Manchester City who won 3-0 in the Carabao Cup in September.
Alex Neil, linked with the Baggies job last season, has done a remarkable job at Deepdale to get Preston challenging towards the top end of the table. It has been largely based on their home form, where they have amassed an impressive 23 points from 9 games, contrasting with the 8 that they have earned on the road. Their last outing, a 4-0 defeat at Hull City on Wednesday evening, may have dented confidence but I’m sure they will still feel invincible on their own patch. Leeds United and Bristol City are the only sides to come away from a league game at Preston with a point this campaign.
The Lilywhites’ defeat at Hull could be partly due to the absences of Ben Davies and Darnell Fisher, two of their regular back four, and both remain doubtful for Monday’s game. It is going forward that North End have been most impressive, however, scoring 25 goals at Deepdale out of their overall total of 31, with midfielder, Daniel Johnson, topping their charts with eight goals this campaign. Almost half of their goals have come from set pieces, so I’m sure Bilić and his coaching team will have been studying their routines closely to work out how they can be countered.
However, I’m equally sure that Alex Neil and his staff will have been concentrating on how to stop Albion given their recent form. Wednesday’s performance against Bristol City was one of the best of the season, although when the visitors pulled a goal back with ten minutes left, there were a few nerves, but they were soon calmed when Hal Robson-Kanu put away the third. Albion, of course, should have been out of sight by that point and the failure to make the most of the dominance of games they are exerting remains a slight concern.
The visitors had a spell early in the second half which fizzled out after Ashley Williams went through the back of Pereira and earned himself a yellow card, and perhaps was fortunate to escape a second for his confrontation with Kyle Bartley. After that flashpoint, City never regained the energy with which they started the second period and Albion looked comfortable until that goal with ten minutes left. There was more than a hint of offside about both Robson-Kanu’s and Austin’s goals, but it was a result and scoreline that the Baggies deserved.
One tactical tweak that was interesting to note was Bilić’s decision to swap Ajayi and Bartley from their usual sides in central defence. I’m sure the idea of switching Ajayi to the left was to provide some pace to cover for Gibbs to get forward, with Ferguson less likely to roam. It worked well given that the former Arsenal man found himself in the box to score the opener! As an aside, I also noticed that Matheus Pereira filled in at left back on one occasion when Gibbs had made a run into near enough a centre forward position. It shows the fantastic level of teamwork that Bilić has managed to engender within the squad, and how even the flair players are prepared to put in the hard yards.
A few weeks ago, I’m sure every Baggies fan would have taken a point at Preston, but recent results and the fact that a win is needed to regain the lead of the table will mean that many will be disappointed if Albion do not win.
Anything less than a victory will leave me disappointed as I feel that the Baggies need to make the most of having a fully fit squad, because that won’t be the case for too long. But a point would not be disastrous even though it would see Albion off the top – being top in December is not important, and there would still be a five point gap to third.
Having said that, I would love the three points if only to remind the Leeds-loving media that there are two teams in the Championship title race.
Being a fellow Founder Member of the Football League, there are plenty of Albion v Preston encounters to choose from, although the Lilywhites’ extended spell outside the top flight (their last season was 1960/61) means that Monday evening’s encounter will only be the 101st league meeting between the sides.
This time I’m going back to the 76th league encounter which was more than 60 years ago in Vic Buckingham’s last season in charge at the Hawthorns before he went off to lay the foundations of Total Football at Ajax.
It was on 31st January 1959 that Albion visited Deepdale for a top six encounter. North End were in third spot just a point behind leaders, Arsenal, while the Baggies were in 6th a further three points back but with three games in hand on both Preston and Arsenal. The weather and the FA Cup meant that Buckingham’s team had not played a league match since 3rd January and there was much talk about the Baggies’ return to Lancashire in a fortnight’s time to take on Blackpool in the FA Cup Fifth Round.
Lilywhites’ legend, Tom Finney hadn’t played since Christmas Day due to injury, and would only play one more match that season and such was Finney’s influence, his absence was a massive boost to Albion. They were also missing first choice ‘keeper, Fred Else, with youngster, Mike Lynne, deputising.
The Baggies were missing one or two key players of their own, however, with captain, Ray Barlow, and outside left, Derek Hogg, also ruled out. On the day, however, the visitors coped much better with their absentees.
Albion opened the scoring on 16 minutes when outside right, Frank Griffin, put in a perfectly measured cross for Derek ‘The Tank’ Kevan to head home. Six minutes later, it was 2-0. Griffin won the ball back from a defensive error and ran through on his own to slot it past Lynne.
The hosts pulled a goal back when Tommy Thompson headed home, but Albion restored their two goal lead before the break. Preston’s young stopper was badly out of position when Ronnie Allen’s cross from the left was headed in by by Kevan for his second goal of the game.
Preston started the second half in a more determined mood and brought the Albion defence under some concerted pressure. Joe Kennedy was playing centre-half for the first time that season in place of the injured Barlow and he had to be at his best alongside Setters and Howe to keep the hosts at bay. They did reduce the arrears, however, just before the hour mark when Derek Mayers found the net with a cross shot.
Albion soon increased the gap again, although this time it was thanks to an own goal by Frank O’Farrell who scooped the ball into his own net when trying to clear a shot by Alec Jackson.
From that point on, the visitors rarely looked under threat and saw the game out for a 4-2 victory. Unfortunately, Albion then went on a run of eight games without a win which saw them exit the FA Cup at Blackpool and lose any chance they may have had of challenging for the title. They recovered towards the end and finished in fifth place.
Without Finney, Preston floundered and dropped down to 12th place. The next season would be Finney’s last, and a year after that, North End were relegated from the top flight and they’ve not been back since.
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All competitions; most recent game on the right
13 Apr 2019 – League Championship
West Brom 4 (Gayle (3), Rodriguez)
Preston North End 1 (Robinson)
Last meeting at Preston North End
29 Sep 2018 – League Championship
Preston North End 2 (Hughes, Browne)
West Brom 3 (Rodriguez, Davies (o.g.), Gayle)
Albion’s Record against Preston North End