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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 14/02/04, 3.00pm
Preston North End
Something to smile about
By Andy Myall

So, Preston then. And as I struggle to remember the game's various events and talking points, one thing is clear above all. This was a good thing.

Not just the performance (although it was surely one of the best of the season, if not the best) but for the number of factors that gave the more optimistic supporter something to smile about. We'd just beaten one of the supposed 'form teams' of the division by two goals, and they'd looked pretty ordinary in the process. We'd done it without Heidar, and with two youngsters in the side, both of whom gave much hope for the future. And, finally we had defended well at the death while still looking to attack rather than having the ball hoofed to the half way line while the players braced themselves for the next wave.

The game started with the line-up that was more or less expected, robbed of Gayle and Webber by injury, and Helguson by the first of a three match suspension, the defensive line in front of Pidgeley comprised Dyche and Ifil in the middle, flanked by Smith and captain Cox. The midfield trio were Mahon, Hyde and Ardley, restored to his favoured role, with Fitzgerald, Devlin and the debutant Bouazza ahead of them.

Preston immediately set about trying to bludgeon their way through the Watford side, the chief weapon being the sizeable Ricardo Fuller. Although for the first twenty-five minutes or so they had the best of the possession, I can only recall one moment of panic that came from a genuine goal scoring chance. Pidgeley, who had a fairly quiet game on the whole, got down low to his left to get the faintest but crucial touch to a well-directed shot along the ground from Eddie Lewis.

Fuller beat the Watford defence to get a downward header towards the corner of the goal, but Dyche was on hand to deflect it away and Pidgeley was alert enough to gather it and avoid conceding a corner.

In soaking up this pressure, Watford had managed to create a couple of chances of note themselves. Both fell to Fitzgerald, his early shot was deflected wide, while later he just failed to hit the target with a glancing header from the penalty spot in front of the Vicarage Road end after Ardley's cross.

As the game turned, it was Bouazza who secured the lead for the Hornets. Smith fired a ball into the box and the young French striker stabbed it into the Preston goal. It capped a fine debut performance, only slightly marred by a yellow card (which seemed to be a symptom of a determination to make up for Helguson's absense by chasing every available ball, and some that weren't) and also by the injury which forced his withdrawal in the second half. Let's hope it's not too serious as the club is all too short of in form strikers for the next two games and beyond, and young Scott is living proof of what can happen when youth is given its chance.

Speaking of youth, a word about Jerel Ifil. At the front of the team, it's okay for Bouazza to make a couple of mistakes, mis-controlling the ball along the left-hand touchline, as we'll only remember the goal, but for Ifil one mistake could spell disaster for the whole team. This was the first chance I had to see him in action, and I dare say I wasn't the only one who was very impressed. He's certainly a big lad but looked very much in control and confident throughout the game, dealing with clearances and holding off attackers strongly. His time at Swindon has obviously served him well. And with his partner on Saturday bidding the club farewell at the end of the season, this is one player that Ray must nurture.

The crucial second goal wasn't to be found until the seventy-seventh minute and in the intervening minutes both teams had good passages of play, but without the visitors looking too threatening. Fuller no longer had the same impact and the yellow line in front of the Rookery remained solid. The midfield trio continued to look good. Not exactly spectacular, but, well, solid. Which is what you need really, and by the time the second goal did arrive it was well due. Devlin's pace had begun to tell down the right-hand side and it was this that carried him free onto a long ball ahead of the Preston defence, and it was a simple enough matter to poke the ball over the stranded Lonergan. Into the net it bounced to be met by the kind of celebrations that already knew there would be no comeback this week.

We still had to defend a bit in the last ten minutes, mind, but this was done further up the field and with attacks of our own. A third goal was almost produced by the lively Fitzgerald, somehow contriving an overhead kick on a loose ball from a corner that was barely three feet of the ground.

So to sum up, only the week before Preston had beaten clear in second place West Bromwich Abion 3-0, but showed little of that form on Saturday. Which goes to show, it's not simply a matter of beating those sides below and around us in the league table. An organised and confident team is capable of taking points off (almost) anyone. Make no mistake about it, the upcoming games against Walsall, Franchise FC, Bradford and Derby will be some of the most important of the season, but a team playing like Watford did on Saturday could easily steal points from promotion contenders Sheffield United and Ipswich too. The next month could well see Watford create a decent-sized gap between us and the abyss, and now, we can see it happening.