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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

North End ruled by the bottom line

Losing 3-1 never makes for a good day. Losing 3-1, your unbeaten record, and your top defender to a promotion rival makes for a very bad day though. It's been 24 hours to forget for Preston North End.

The sale of Sean St. Ledger to Middlesbrough, albeit not to the fans' surprise, was met with appropriate dismay when confirmed.

Going into last night's Championship games, Preston were just a single point behind the Teessiders, and protecting a proud unbeaten record in all competitions.

A below-par performance and defeat at Scunthorpe later, and some are now questioning the validity of North End's promotion hopes this season, as well as the ambition of the club under chairman Derek Shaw.

The deal with Boro, amongst all the smog and mirrrors, is believed to be around £4.5 million - a healthy sum of money for a player they bought for around £225,000. However, various questions about the psychological impact such a sale can have on a club have to be considered.

Manager Alan Irvine, despite interest from West Brom over the summer, turned down a move to The Hawthorns in favour of staying in Lancashire. He believed the club were moving in the right direction.

With the Baggies sitting pretty at the top of the division, will he, feeling let down, be rueing such an unusual act of loyalty and casting an envious eye over events in the Black Country?

After the match the Scot, although obviously disappointed with the departure of St. Ledger, refused to use it as an excuse for his side's loss in Lincolnshire. Nor would you expect him to. However, just what impact did it have on his players?

Not only did it disrupt a defence that had been the backbone of the side's successful start to the season, but it also sent out the worst kind of message to the squad.

Take Paul Parry for example. The winger, marginalised by Cardiff City, joined the Lilywhites over the summer, eager to push for promotion with his new club. Sold a dream of promotion, just a month into the new season and one of his most important teammates has gone.

The problem for Preston is every time they sell a player to another club, they fail to sell their club to another player. Given the opportunity of a club gunning for the top flight or one that sells players to a promotion rival, and it's a choice unlikely to task even the intelligence of footballers.

St. Ledger was a fans' favourite at Deepdale

Shaw will always retreat to the usual line - the bottom one, and to some regards, it is completely understandable. A custodian of a football club is not an enviable position. Striving for success whilst trying to balance the books is a challenge for clubs like Preston.

Since winning promotion back to the Championship in 2000, the club have consistently punched above their weight in challenging for a place in the Premier League. Sustaining it on gates of 13,000 has taken excellent management from the likes of David Moyes, Billy Davies, and now Irvine.

And, when you consider the demise of bigger clubs than Preston, clubs like Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, and Charlton, sides who paid the price for poor book-keeping, and you can understand his caution.

North End's financial position is not sound. A reliance on majority shareholder Trevor Hemmings, who has ploughed about £10 million of his own money into the club to keep them going, is cause for concern.

The chairman will also point to the fact that if 5,000 extra fans came through the turnstiles at Deepdale, decisions like yesterday's wouldn't have to be made, but the club's financial position dictates they must sell to survive.

However, Shaw's biggest problem now lies 25 miles away in east Lancashire - Burnley. A traditional club who defied the odds to win promotion under their astute Scottish boss despite some of the lowest gates in the division. Sound familiar?

Burnley's success has shown that smaller clubs, with the right management, can achieve the impossible dream. And if the Clarets, a club comparable in size to North End, can do it, then why not Preston?

The truth may be that Turf Moor supremo Barry Kilby was willing to gamble. He placed his trust in Owen Coyle's management, and the majority of the money received for the transfers of Kyle Lafferty and Andy Gray was re-invested back into the squad.

Preston, on the other hand, have consistently failed to push the boat out and speculate to accumulate. Had they shown more ambition and backed Billy Davies, the Scot, as he did with Derby, could have taken the club into the Premier League.

Instead, over the years they have sold players like Richard Cresswell and Jon Macken to fellow Championship clubs, damaging their own promotion hopes whilst strengthening their opponents'.

Had they chosen to turn down Middlesbrough's money, shown faith in Irvine, whose results record as well as his dealings in the transfer market have been almost flawless, this time may have been different.

For a club with a rich history, there's a feeling they've seen this all before. Perhaps, when it comes to ending their 48-year exile from the top flight, it's more bravery, not money, that's required.


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