Preston North End v West Bromwich Albion; Deepdale, Wednesday 5th October, 8pm
While there was much speculation that Steve Bruce would be dismissed following his team’s abject home defeat to Swansea on Saturday, it is perhaps no surprise that he remains in charge as Albion prepare to take on Preston North End at Deepdale. An absent and largely disinterested owner coupled with an apparently mute CEO who, were he to act, would be admitting to having got it spectacularly wrong by appointing his “mate” in the first place, does not seem likely to produce swift and decisive action. Add in the financial implications of sacking a manager with 18+ months left on his contract and the current inaction entirely meets expectations.
I have always been prepared to give Bruce a chance, as I have done with any manager. The club has sacked their manager mid-season in four of the last five campaigns in an effort to save the season, and not one of those decisions has had the desired effect – the last “successful” mid-season change was the appointment of Tony Pulis in January 2015. Sacking a manager is all very well, but it is the appointment that follows that determines the success of the decision, and this club don’t have a great track record in recent years!
Having had two weeks to work with the squad, Saturday’s display was unacceptable. The inclusion of Tom Rogic was initially welcome, but evidently a call made too early given the guy’s evident lack of match fitness, and to put him in a midfield when the only defensive protection was offered by Jake Livermore smacked of desperation. Livermore performed well, but without the energy of Molumby alongside him, one of the Baggies’ most consistent performers this season, it was always going to be a massive risk, particularly against a footballing side like Swansea. David Button was once again found wanting and Karlan Grant’s penalty was scandalous. Bruce’s excuse that he was the designated penalty taker just begs the question “why?” given he had missed three of his eight penalties for Albion before Saturday.
Bruce seems to have run out of ideas and doesn’t know how to fix the problems and, just as it became inevitable under Ismaël, the players are perhaps starting to feel it and the bulk of the fanbase has lost faith. The difference this time is that the man in charge of firing is the man who hired him and, to this point, has seemed determined to give him until the end of next season. If a decision does come, I wonder whether it will need to come from above Gourlay. Bruce’s comment in Tuesday’s pre-match press conference that he is confident that Albion will better last season’s tenth place finish suggests that he doesn’t think he will face the sack if Albion fail to make the play-offs. I always thought that this season would be tougher that most expected, but that statement is an acceptance of mediocrity and a sign of a lack of ambition. Having said that, a top ten finish is looking ambitious at the moment!
For me, the Swansea game needed to show progress and it showed none. I’m not hopeful that we will see any at Deepdale, and the hosts will be rubbing their hands with glee at Albion’s defensive frailties given that Preston have scored just three league goals all season. Six of the Lilywhites’ eleven league games have finished goalless and a 1-1 draw with Burnley means that they have drawn as many games as the Baggies. They have, however, won twice albeit they are still looking for their first victory at home.
In what has been something of an all-round goal drought, Preston didn’t concede a goal until their eighth game of the campaign when they lost 1-0 to Birmingham City and only in their last home game, a 2-0 defeat to Sheffield United, have they conceded more than once in any game. They are yet to score more than once in a match, and yet to concede away from home.
If Bruce is to engineer a turnaround, there could be no better fixture away from the Hawthorns given their opponents’ current form. Only Coventry and Wigan have earned fewer points at home than Preston, and they have only played two and five home matches respectively to Preston’s six. North End have also only scored once at home all season.
Despite having defended his goalkeeper this week, I feel the manager needs to give Palmer an opportunity and he definitely needs to restore Molumby to the starting line up. Rogic is obviously not yet match fit and, while an hour on Saturday will have helped, I would put him on the bench even though John Swift has hardly sparkled in recent games.
Other than those changes, I would probably go with the team that started on Saturday – you could look to tweak the back four, but that is only likely to confuse with so little time to prepare. What Bruce will need to see is a performance from his players that shows they are still behind him, but will he get one? Moreover, if he does, he’ll need another one on Saturday, and back-to-back performances have been few and far between in the Bruce era. Reasons for optimism are few and far between.
Last season’s home defeat was Albion’s first by Preston since January 2008 and, before the start of the last campaign, the Baggies had enjoyed five consecutive victories over the Lilywhites including two at Deepdale.
Charlie Austin’s last-minute penalty earned all three points in December 2019 and kept Slaven Bilić’s Albion two points clear of Leeds United at the top of the Championship table. In September 2018, a 3-2 win thanks to strikes from Jay Rodriguez and Dwight Gayle, and a Ben Davies own goal, moved Darren Moore’s Baggies to the top of the table for the first (and only) time that season.
As two of the oldest clubs in the country and Founder Members of the Football League, the history of this fixture goes back well into the 19th century with the first two meetings coming in the FA Cup. Both were won by the Baggies, including their first FA Cup Final win in March 1888 when North End were overwhelming favourites.
Albion would have to wait another 13 years for their first win at Deepdale, however, a 3-2 win in April 1901 which proved to be Albion’s last victory of a season in which they were relegated from the top flight for the first time. The Baggies’ best win in Preston came in February 1922 when Alf Smith, Fred Morris and Stan Davies were all on target in a 3-0 victory.
North End have beaten Albion 5-0 on two occasions, both before the dawn of the 20th century. The second league match between the sides at Deepdale in October 1889 finished 5-0 to the “Invincibles” as they became known having remained unbeaten for the whole of the previous campaign, and that scoreline was repeated in February 1895.
The highest scoring game between the sides at Deepdale came in January 1959. Vic Buckingham was in his last season at the Hawthorns and Albion returned to league football at Deepdale after successive FA Cup victories over Sheffield Wednesday and Brentford. The hosts were flying high in the table in third place, just a point behind leaders Arsenal, while the Baggies were three places and three points further back. It was the visitors who started strongly, taking a 2-0 lead through Derek Kevan and Frank Griffin before Tommy Thompson reduced the arrears for the hosts just before the half hour. The “Tank” scored his second just before the break to restore Albion’s two-goal lead but, 14 minutes after half time, there was just one goal in it again after Derek Mayers made it 2-3. The points looked to have been made secure for Buckingham’s team, however, just six minutes later when Frank O’Farrell put through his own goal. The Baggies held on to win 4-2 and it proved to be the start of a collapse for the Lilywhites as their title hopes disappeared with a run of just one win in 13 games. Albion also followed that result with a poor spell but recovered to finish in fifth place in the table, albeit 12 points off league champions Wolves.
|Preston North End||D||W||L||D||L||D|
All competitions; most recent game on the right
26 Jan 2022 – League Championship
West Brom 0
Preston North End 2 (Riis Jakobsen, Archer)
Last meeting at Preston North End
18 Sep 2021 – League Championship
Preston North End 1 (Whiteman)
West Brom 1 (Phillips)
25 Feb 2020 – League Championship
West Brom 2 (Robson-Kanu, Livermore)
Preston North End 0
Last win at Preston North End
2 Dec 2019 – League Championship
Preston North End 0
West Brom 1 (Austin (pen))
Albion’s Record against Preston North End
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