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Preston feel downward pull while Lancashire rivals thrive
Mark Tallentire at Loftus Road - 3 years ago

Times are tough for Preston North End fans right now, having spent the best part of 11 years dreaming of making it to the Premier League only to see their barely prepared Blackpool neighbours squeeze into the Championship play-offs last May and then secure a top-flight place at the first time of asking.

With Ian Holloway's side making a brave fist of it this season and Burnley and Wigan Athletic also having beaten Preston to the punch in recent times, two play-off final defeats and two losing semi-finals, the last of them to Sheffield United under the management of Alan Irvine only 18 months ago, mean that North End are left with Bury, Rochdale and Accrington Stanley as the only Lancashire sides to miss out on the Premier League since its inception.The prospect of losing that unwanted tag looked as far away as ever on Saturday when a 3-1 defeat at Queens Park Rangers, back on top of the Championship as a result, kept Darren Ferguson's side three points adrift at the bottom and launched predictable taunts of "you're getting sacked in the morning" and "your dad's ashamed of you" from home fans. The manager later claimed not to have heard them although he retreated into the dug-out soon after, failing to appear after Matthew Connolly gifted his team an own goal two minutes from time and only re-emerged after the final whistle.

It was not meant to be this way, of course, and the manager who took over in January after the majority shareholder Trevor Hemmings got the back-to-back promotion-winning former Peterborough manager's number from an old friend, Sir Alex Ferguson, at the races may now be pondering the fact that this is the 50th season Preston have been absent from the top flight, even though they began upgrading Deepdale in the mid-90s and unlike Blackpool, have been ready to host Premier League football for years.

Irvine was dismissed in December due to a perceived lack of acumen in the transfer market with Preston sitting in 16th place and they went on to finish 17th as the Scot began his rebuild. North End then survived a winding-up order brought by HMRC in May with Hemmings, an Isle of Man-based property developer, subsequently launching a full takeover and de-listing the club from the stock market in an attempt to provide off-pitch stability.

A long-standing Preston fan and the owner of a string of racehorses, including the 2005 Grand National winner Hedgehunter, Hemmings also brought in Maurice Lindsay, the media-savvy former chairman of Wigan rugby league club, to be his eyes and ears while he tries to prop up a club more than £18m in debt and losing a reported £400,000 a month, providing loans well in excess of £14m to keep them afloat.

Gates have slipped as low as 9,000 this season, however, and with 13,000-14,000 required to break even, there is work to be done to get the waverers back. Lindsay is trying to cut costs and has taken non-essential company cars from admin staff and designated September's Norwich game a Super Saver special and charged £5 for adults and £1 for children. The 1-0 defeat attracted more than 18,000 fans but the gate soon slipped back at regular rates while the wage bill is another encumbrance, with Sean St Ledger one of the top-paid players at around £10,000 a week.

QPR offer a compelling counterpoint to Preston's situation and after almost 10 years of hiring and firing in a bid to return to the Premier League in which they finished fifth back in the inaugural 1992?93 season, they have seemingly stumbled on the formula by hiring the experienced Neil Warnock after Crystal Palace went into administration last season. It is the type of appointment that will not have gone unnoticed at Deepdale, where they have the stated aim of a three-year plan to reach the Premier League, and nor will it with perceived promotion specialists such as the out-of-work Phil Brown and Iain Dowie.

That said, it was a howler from the usually reliable Preston goalkeeper Andy Lonergan that put the skids under Ferguson on Saturday, letting in Rob Hulse for a tap-in after four minutes, and although Preston were quick on the counter-attack, passes were often misplaced and two excellent second-half goals from Adel Taarabt ensured QPR retained their unbeaten record. Eight draws have been costly in terms of getting clear of Cardiff, but they visit the second-placed club at the weekend and will do so full of confidence.

Preston are due in the Welsh capital the following Saturday as Ferguson continues on a run of matches which will decide his future. "They are all big games," said the 38-year-old Scot, who brought in three loan signings last week and was planning to watch a striker in Greece yesterday. "We start next week with a home game against Millwall. We've got to go on a run that we haven't been on all season in terms of getting three, four results going our way."

Blackpool, meanwhile, head to Bolton for a rerun of the 1953 FA Cup final and what promises to be a rip-roaring, old-fashioned Lancashire derby.

This is not a news report and may contain views expressed by the author which are not supported by GNM.

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