Jimmy Shan will once again be the main man in the Baggies dugout this weekend, but he will pitting his wits against the man who has emerged this week as favourite to replace him as head coach at the Hawthorns, Preston manager, Alex Neil.
There may have been other examples since, but I’m drawn to the case of George Graham who managed Leeds United against Spurs in September 1998 just a few days before he was appointed manager at White Hart Lane. The speculation was similarly rife ahead of the fixture with Christian Gross having been sacked just three games into the season. Spurs had gone a month without a permanent boss. Sound familiar? For the record, the game finished 3-3.
Other than their nationality, there’s not much to liken Graham and Neil, and I would certainly hope that the Preston boss is a far more honest and upstanding man than Graham was rumoured to have been!
There must be a similar dichotomy, however, in preparing for a match against what could be your future employers. For Alex Neil, it is perhaps more poignant in that a victory for Preston could make his potential next job much harder. While his words to the media may be all about his current club and job, he wouldn’t be human if it wasn’t on his mind.
Another interesting angle will be how the two men react with one another. Should Neil be appointed, he may well not want to keep Shan on his staff, although it would be a real shame if he was forced to leave the club, but it could be that the two protagonists will be working together within a few days. Neither man has shown himself to be particularly belligerent on the touchline, but it will be interesting to see if there is any increased show of respect between them.
If Neil is the man to take over, he should at least be well versed in the strengths and weaknesses of his new team having prepared for this match!
Jimmy Shan has had a tough week although, as I said in my report on Wednesday, his players have let him down in the last two games. He was honest enough to effectively call Johnstone out for not following instructions by saying that he had asked the team not to take risks at the back even before the disastrous events at Ashton Gate, and we would certainly expect the former Man Utd youth ‘keeper to be launching everything up field on Saturday.
There is good news in that Ahmed Hegazi will be available having served his one match suspension, and even better news that Matt Phillips is finally fit again having played just three games since New Year’s Day.
Only Gareth Barry and James Morrison will be unavailable, so we should again expect a shuffling of the pack. There may be a change in formation with Shan having switched to a back three at half time on Tuesday, but I would expect him to stick to the 4-5-1/4-3-3 that he has started every game with.
As for the visitors, Alex Neil has done an admirable job on a small budget to get North End to be in the top half of the table. Having been in 17th place on New Year’s Day, he guided them on a 12 match unbeaten run that lifted them to 7th place in the middle of last month, level on points with 6th-placed Aston Villa. Since then, however, they have lost three games in succession albeit the last two at home to Sheffield United and Leeds United.
If the season had started in October, following Albion’s win at Deepdale, Neil’s team would be sitting in 5th place. Only Norwich City (68), Leeds United (60) and Sheffield United (59) have won more points in the division since then than Preston North End (52), who have the same points total as Aston Villa and Hull City, and two more than the Baggies.
Whatever the next week or two will bring in terms of the coaching staff, it is important for Albion to get back to winning ways as the season nears its end. They haven’t lost three games in succession so far this season, and now is not the time to start. Preston will not be an easy opponent, none are in the Championship, but the Baggies should have enough to take the three points.
As two founder members of the Football League, it’s no surprise that Albion and Preston have a long history, but the Lancashire side’s spell in the lower reaches of English football during the 60s, 70s and 80s means that this weekend’s fixture is “only” the 112th meeting between the sides.
It is a landmark however, as it will be the 100th league meeting coming almost 129 years after the first back in October 1888 at Deepdale. The football historians amongst you will know that Preston North End were the first “invincibles” as they remained unbeaten during that first ever season of league football and, having dispatched Albion 3-0 at Deepdale, North End visited Stoney Lane for the first time on Boxing Day of the same year and recorded a 5-0 victory with a brace each from John Goodall and Jimmy Ross and another goal from Jack Gordon, their biggest ever win on Albion soil.
Those two games were some revenge from Albion having surprisingly defeated Preston in the FA Cup final earlier that year, the first time the Baggies lifted the trophy. The first ever meeting between the sides had also come in the FA Cup in 1887 when the Lilywhites were defeated 3-1 in the semi-final at Trent Bridge.
North End haven’t managed to match their 5-0 win at the Hawthorns with their biggest win at the Baggies’ current home coming in March 1921 when a Tommy Roberts hat-trick saw them to a 3-0 victory.
Albion’s record win over Preston was 4-0 in January 1960. An own goal from Garbutt Richardson was followed up with strikes from Alec Jackson and Derek Kevan to give the hosts a 3-0 half time lead at the Hawthorns. Ronnie Allen completed the scoring in the second half.
Preston were relegated the following season and the two clubs only shared a division once in the next 30 years, Division Two in 1974-5, until Albion’s relegation to the third tier brought them together once again in 1991.
The highest scoring match between the sides was at Stoney Lane back in 1895. Albion scored four goals with William Richards, Tom Hitchinson (2) and the legendary Billy Bassett all scoring only to lose by the odd goal in nine as the visitors scored five including a hat trick from Frank Becton.
Since “hostilities” resumed in 1991, Albion have a 100% home record against North End winning all nine meetings at the Hawthorns including a 3-0 win in 1992 when Bob Taylor, Kwame Ampadu and Colin West were on target.
On Boxing Day 2006, the strengths and weaknesses of Tony Mowbray’s team were aptly demonstrated when Koumas and Kamara gave the Baggies an early lead only for the visitors to square it up with a Graham Alexander penalty and another goal from David Nugent despite having former Baggie, Danny Dichio, sent off in the first half. The home side eventually won it, however, as substitute Nathan Ellington scored two late goals.
The most recent of Preston’s seven wins at the Hawthorns (six of their away wins were at Stoney Lane) was in September 1973 when Don Howe’s Baggies went down 2-0 to Bobby Charlton’s Preston – it was the first of three seasons that England’s legendary Word Cup winner spent as manager at Deepdale. Interestingly, Charlton’s England team mate and future Baggies manager, Nobby Stiles, was in the Lilywhites team that day.
The most recent meeting at the Hawthorns was in March 2010. Steve Watson and Christ Brunt gave Albion an early 2-0 lead before Sean St Ledger pulled one back. Graham Dorrans made it 3-1 just after the half hour but Neil Mellor scored another for the visitors before half time. The Baggies managed to hold on during a scoreless second period to claim the points.
|Preston North End||W||W||W||L||L||L|
All competitions; most recent game on the right
29 Sep 2018 – League Championship
Preston North End 2 (Hughes, Browne)
West Brom 3 (Rodriguez, Davies (o.g.), Gayle)
Last meeting at the Hawthorns
20 Mar 2010 – League Championship
West Brom 3 (Watson, Brunt, Dorrans)
Preston North End 2 (St Ledger, Mellor)
Albion’s Record against Preston North End