Preston have found it hard to regain their early-season form since the Championship restarted and are in danger of missing out on a play-off spot for which they seemed favourites earlier in the campaign.
Going into the lockdown break, North End were holding on to sixth place, despite a run of four defeats in five games.
And their poor form continued when they got back under way again, with two defeats and two draws in their first four matches on the resumption.
Although they picked up a welcome 3-1 win at Sheffield Wednesday last Wednesday, they were held 1-1 by Nottingham Forest on Saturday to leave them two points adrift of the top six with three matches to play – starting with Wednesday’s 5pm kick-off at Griffin Park. Their final two games are at home to Birmingham and away to Bristol City.
It could still be Preston’s best season in the Championship since winning promotion from League One a year after us in 2015.
The closest they have come to the play-offs was when they came seventh two seasons ago, only two points behind sixth-placed Derby. Apart from that, they have finished 11th twice and then 14th last season.
North End are also, along with Brentford, one of only five current Championship clubs never to have played in the Premier League – the others being Bristol City, Luton and Millwall.
They were, however, the first-ever Football League champions – finishing top of the table in each of the first two seasons of the competition in 1889 and 1890.
Preston were last in the top division (old Division One) in 1961.
WHO’S IN CHARGE
Alex Neil was appointed Preston manager in early July 2017, in succession to Simon Grayson, who had left to join Sunderland.
Neil had been sacked by Norwich in March after 27 months in charge, during which time he led them into the Premier League – although they were relegated after one season.
Before that, he managed Hamilton and led them into the Scottish Premier League, after helping them to a similar feat as a player in 2008.
He also represented Airdrie, Barnsley and Mansfield in a playing career in which he made more than 400 senior appearances.
WE’VE MET BEFORE
Brentford and Preston have been regular opponents in recent years – with the most memorable game from our point of view being the 1-0 win in April 2014 that clinched our promotion to the Championship.
In the nine games since at this level, we have the upper hand with five wins, one draw and three defeats and there has rarely been a dull game.
We did the double in 2015/16 with a 2-1 win at Griffin Park and 3-1 victory in the return.
The following season saw us hammer North End 5-0 early on in the season in TW8, but come off worse in another goal glut as we lost 4-2 at Deepdale in the return.
In 2016/17, Ollie Watkins was the match-winner at Deepdale as, after taking the lead three times, we finally won a five-goal thriller 3-2.
Nico Yennaris gave us the lead before being knocked out cold after a clash with Jordan Hugill straight after Preston kicked off. Sean Maguire equalised before half-time, but Romaine Sawyers restored our lead, only for Tom Barkhuizen to hit North End’s second leveller.
Watkins had the final word, though, as he turned in Florian Jozefzoon’s cross for the winner.
The home game in February finished 1-1 with Florian Jozefzoon cancelling out Tom Barkhuizen’s opener before North End’s Greg Cunningham was sent off.
There were goals galore once again in last season’s first meeting as, in Thomas Frank’s second game in charge, we lost 4-3 at Deepdale in a Wednesday night clash.
We were 3-0 down after only 23 minutes, as goals from Alan Browne, Callum Robinson and Tom Barkhuizen put North End in control. Sergi Canos quickly replied, with one of our goal of the season contenders, and Ollie Watkins gave us hope after the break before Robinson hit his second. Neal Maupay pulled another one back but Preston held on for victory.
The return on the final day of the season was much more straightforward, as we cruised to a 3-0 win.
Ezri Konsa and substitute Marcus Forss each scored their first Championship goals for the club, while Neal Maupay found the net for the last time in a Bees shirt – his 25th league strike of the season.
The result secured our fifth consecutive top half finish in the Championship, and dropped Preston down to a final position of 14th.
We suffered a disappointing 2-0 defeat in this season’s first meeting at Deepdale in mid-September.
Sean Maguire gave Preston a fourth minute lead and they never looked back, with Tom Barkhuizen sealing the victory 20 minutes from time.
The win lifted Preston into the play-off places, but pushed us down to 18th in the table.
BBC Radio Lancashire commentator Andy Bayes gives his verdict on whether Preston can make the play-offs, what it is like watching football in empty grounds, and explains why he will miss his visits to Griffin Park.
Q – Why did Preston’s form dip in February and, barring the Sheffield Wednesday game, and why haven’t they been able to turn it around?
A – It’s not an easy one to explain. North End are like many other Championship teams. More than capable of winning a match on any given day, but they can also lose them. Since the restart, the late equaliser at Luton was a huge blow for them. They controlled the game but couldn’t see it through and missed a great chance against Cardiff to equalise before they finished the game at the other end.
Q – How different is the North End squad to how it was before the lockdown – anyone back from injury or suspension or any loans or contracts ended?
A – The squad remains very much the same. Club captain Tom Clarke has left the club with his contract coming to an end, but Paul Gallagher has stayed on until the end of the season at the earliest. Injuries have meant that the starting 11 has seen a number of changes. Gallagher, Daniel Johnson and Alan Browne have all been injured. Ben Davies and Ben Pearson are now struggling with injuries. Brad Potts appears to be getting back to his best form after a difficult season trying to rediscover it.
Q – Can PNE do enough to take the final play-off place?
A – Yes, absolutely. Sixth spot remains up for grabs, although the Tuesday night results could increase the level of pressure to try and get a result. They have Birmingham at home and Bristol City away still to play after this visit to Griffin Park.
Q – What has it been like being in empty stadiums for matches?
A – An experience I never want to see again. The matches are gradually improving, but fans make football and without them it will never feel right. Players respond to the fans and I think it’s shown just how important that fans are. I hope clubs realise even more now how much they should be valued.
Q – It will be your final visit to Griffin Park – do you have any memories of previous visits?
A – I thought my visit with Blackburn Rovers earlier this season would be my last, so this is a bonus! I love Griffin Park, I’ll miss it. I feel so sorry for the fans who don’t get to say a proper goodbye at the end of this season. I am fully behind Preston North End to win this match, but I genuinely hope that Brentford go up. They’ve got a great keeper and a great lad with David Raya. In terms of visits in the past, they always seem to go wrong, so next question!
Q – How did you feed your football fix during the lockdown – watching old matches, reading football books or did you switch off from the game completely?
A – I can’t switch off. I’m fortunate where I got to record a lot of interviews for BBC Radio Lancashire and still talk about football. I loved the World Cup reruns and the classic cup finals on the telly. I loved spending time with my family, but I’m so glad that the game is back, I just wish it was properly back. That won’t be the case until the fans return.
Q – Finally can you tell me the likely Preston line-up and formation please?
A – Rudd
Rafferty Storey Bauer Hughes
Ledson (or Johnson), Gallagher (or Pearson)
Barkhuizen Potts Sinclair
BEESOTTED SCORE PREDICTIONS
Some of the Beesotted crew have given me their score predictions for Wednesday’s game.
Nothing I’ve seen since the restart suggests anything other than a totally focussed, totally committed, totally brilliant Bees team… we will win again. The score is irrelevant now. Dave Lane
2-1 Bees. I fancy it being a tough game, close to the end and we snatch it in the last 10 minutes. Jimmy Mack
2-0 Bees. Preston are no rollovers, despite their recent record. Remember they have already beaten us this season. But Brentford are on a roll.
HOW TO FOLLOW THE GAME
The match is being played behind closed doors, but is being shown live on Sky Sports Football – broadcast details here.
Bees season ticket holders can watch for free on iFollow if you have redeemed your code – other Bees fans can watch on iFollow for £10 per game – full details here.