Reading round off 2019 with an away trip to Preston North End on Sunday, and as ever we asked PNE writer James Vickers for his take on how the season’s gone so far, what Reading should expect, and plenty more.
He also hosts the Championship Round Table podcast which is a weekly show that covers the second tier. Their Twitter account can be found here, and James’ here. Please note that his answers were written before the Boxing Day fixtures.
When we last spoke in October, you said this season “could be different” to previous ones regarding promotion. Are you still on track for a top six finish?
On the face of it I would say it definitely is still a realistic possibility this season. Apart from the top two not many team seems to be able to put a consistent run together so it is anyone’s to take advantage of.
If we can come out of the back of the Christmas period still in the playoffs I will start to feel more confident. Most seasons we tend to start poorly then put a run together late in the season but ultimately we have left ourselves too much to do with games running out. This season we have started well, but now it’s a case of can we maintain it?
The away form has been the only disappointing thing so far really. For a team pushing to get into the top six we are dropping too many points away with defeats against teams such as Millwall, Reading (as usual at your place), and Derby County. If we can correct that and pick up points away like we did last season then there’s no reason why we can’t sustain this good start. Cardiff away recently was a game we should’ve won but taking a point at a relegated Premier League side isn’t something to be down about.
I think the key for us so far, especially at home, has been the ability to turn draws into victories. We currently have five in 23 games which is the joint-second fewest in the top six. Add to that we are scoring plenty of goals in the process.
Over the past few seasons we have had a tendency to draw far too many games to mount a serious play-off push. We have always been a hard team to beat, but equally, found it hard to beat teams at times. This season so far though we have found that perfect balance, and it is showing by our position in the table.
Who are the brightest young PNE talents for us to look out for in the future?
I seem to say the two same players in every one of these that I write and am always tempted to copy and paste the previous notes that I make, but the short of it is that Ben Davies and Jordan Storey will go very far in the game. Both of them are centre backs who started the majority of our games last season and have been fantastic when called upon - Davies being the real breakout star in the last 12 months.
His breakout season was definitely last season. Before that he had various loan spells to teams such as Lancaster, playing as a left back so not many Preston fans expected he would return and be one of our most valuable players.
Each week a different Premier League club seems to be linked with Davies - Wolves and Everton to name a few - and I think if he keeps performing like he is doing at the moment then it is only a matter of time until he gets the move to the Premier League, unless of course we get promoted!
What do you make of Reading at the moment?
We have really struggled against Reading in recent times so looking at how you are playing seems to be a bit redundant but on the face of it I think you are having a decent season.
I think especially given the managerial situation around the September/October period you have come through that patch a lot better off that I thought you would have. Seeing the fan reaction on Twitter for example it seemed on the outside looking in that it was the wrong decision but since then you have been picking up points and moved comfortably away from the relegation zone.
Your recent form is about how I would expect it to be with two wins, two draws and a single defeat in the past five. You seem to be conceding very few goals this season as well which has surprised me (27 in 23 is the best record in the lower half of the table) and I think come Saturday we will have to be at our clinical best to get past you.
Any pub or sightseeing recommendations for Reading fans making the trip up to Deepdale?
Sightseeing… not particularly. The centre of Preston isn’t one of Britain’s most picturesque places, even though several of my friends would tell you different. If you like architecture then the bus station is probably your best bet which is on the way to the Stadium.
In terms of pubs the best bet for away fans arriving by train is the Old Vic which welcomes away supporters on match days. This is found directly opposite the train station when leaving via the station approach where the taxi rank is.
Five minutes’ walk up the road through Fishergate (the main shopping high street) are a Wetherspoon’s and Yates which will welcome travelling fans. However, these are mainly filled with home supporters, but both are extremely reasonably priced.
Closer to the ground tends to be pubs which only welcome home supporters on match days so my advice would be to stay in the centre of town and make your way over towards the station around 14:00pm.
We’re almost into the 2020s - what have been your personal highlights supporting Preston from the last decade?
The obvious one for every Preston fan has to be the play-off final at Wembley against Swindon Town. Before the game was the most nervous I have ever been as a Preston fan, especially given the fact we had bottled automatic promotion on the final day of the season just a couple of weeks earlier.
From being 1-0 up in the opening few minutes after Jermaine Beckford dispatched a cross at the back post, to him completing his hat trick midway through the second half, was one of the best moments I’ve had supporting Preston - even though until the full-time whistle went I still had this thought in my head that we would find a way to mess it up… (we were 4-0 up in added time).
Since then we have managed to turn ourselves back into a solid Championship side and things only seem to be looking up at present, so the whole period that has succeeded the play-off final has been my favourite part of the decade.
How does Alex Neil set Preston up in terms of formation, system and personnel?
In terms of a system and style this season it tends to be influenced by who is up front. Jayden Stockley who has come into the side recently favours the long-ball approach (which I find infuriating as we have become a really good footballing side) as he has somewhat of an ability to hold the ball up and bring into play midfield runners such as Tom Barkhuizen and Daniel Johnson.
Personally, I prefer our brand of football when we keep it on the deck and look to feed the likes of Barkhuizen and Billy Bodin; the midfielders we have such as Johnson and Gallagher flourish when the ball is at their feet and we are moving it quickly. We tend to play this more so at home, and you only have to look at the contrast in results at home than away from home to see that we are so much better playing this way.
As far as formation it tends to be the same regardless of the way in which we play on the field. Alex Neil has favoured a 4-2-3-1 setup since he took over and I’d expect us to continue with that at the weekend.
Barring injuries, the spine of the side tends to pick itself at the moment with Rudd (goalkeeper), Bauer (centre back), Pearson and Gallagher (central midfield) being the first names on the team sheet. The rest of the team is mostly decided on who is fit/isn’t suspended.
I’d expect Paul Huntington to continue to partner Bauer at the back with Fisher and Hughes in the full-back areas. The three supporting the striker is the trickiest to predict as Neil has a habit of changing it week by week. Given that though I’d say something along the lines of Barkhuizen, Browne, and Maguire won’t be too far off the mark. Up top I would expect Nugent to get the nod.
How do you see the game going, and what will the score be?
Every game against Reading I go into it thinking that we should win; almost every time as I’m sure you’re aware I shoot myself in the foot… Will it be different this weekend? I certainly hope so!
We have been fantastic at home this season turning Deepdale into a real fortress which has massively aided our start to the season. We are winning games that last season we would’ve drawn, and in doing that sees us in the play offs at present.
Come Sunday I expect more of the same but I do think that Reading will pose a threat to us so it isn’t a game I am taking lightly. You are our bogey team after all.
Score wise I think a hard-fought 2-0. We have been good defensively in the last few games after a run of four defeats, and I expect that to carry on at the weekend. If I’m going to stick my neck on the line I think David Nugent and Paul Gallagher will be the goal scorers.