Preston have been the busiest club in the region over the Christmas period, dismissing Darren Ferguson and installing the 51 year old ex-Hull manager Phil Brown in charge on an 18 month contract. Brown will be hoping to recreate his exploits with Hull in the Championship, where he led the Tigers clear of relegation from a seemingly doomed position. The Preston job will certainly provide a stiff challenge with North End currently seven points adrift of safety.
Brown’s cause has not been aided with the departure of influential striker Jon Parkin to promotion chasing Cardiff. However, Ian Hulme’s loan from Barnsley has been converted into a full transfer. On the pitch it has been a difficult month for Preston, who have collected just three points from their last four league games. The most disappointing defeats came in the FA Cup against Nottingham Forest after being 1-0 ahead, and in a crucial six-pointer against Crystal Palace that saw North End crash to a 1-0 loss thanks to a debut goal from Stefan Iversen. Preston’s only success in the last month came against beleaguered Ipswich, with new signing Hulme celebrating his permanent signing with a vital goal.
However, there was a lighter story to come out of Preston amid all the gloom. During the fixture against Derby, mascot Deepdale Duck was escorted out of the stadium for distracting Derby goalkeeper Stephen Bywater. The story made the sports pages nationwide and led to Captain Blade, Sheffield United’s mascot staging a sit in protest at Bramhall Lane in support of his fellow mascot.
With all the drama at Preston, it has been a refreshingly calm period for Wigan. Although the Latics still sit in the Premier League relegation zone, they have collected six points from their last five games. Their sole win in this mini revival was a massive three points collected away against Wolves; Hugo Rodellega once again netted a crucial goal and on-loan midfielder Tom Cleverley added to his burgeoning reputation by adding a second. Wigan also added three creditable draws to this result, including an impressive 2-2 scoreline against Arsenal thanks to a late Sebastian Squillaci own-goal. Reality hit hard in the home game against Newcastle however; Wigan slumped to a 1-0 defeat and seemed toothless in attack as the Toon defence held firm.
Although Wigan may want to focus on their league campaign, the FA Cup will remain a welcome distraction after a thrilling 3-2 victory at Hull. The Latics will travel to Bolton in the fourth round, hoping to make the latter stages and ensure that winning becomes a habit.
The region’s other Premier League side, Blackpool, are sitting in a mid-table position, and continue to defy the critics who had tipped the Seasiders as certain 20th place finishers. The biggest challenge facing Ian Holloway this month, apart from some testing league fixtures, will certainly be holding onto star midfielder Charlie Adam. The creative talent has reportedly been interesting Aston Villa and Birmingham, with bids in the region of £1.5 million having already been rejected according to the media.
Blackpool’s away form has continued to impress with a fantastic six points gained from games against Stoke and Sunderland. Against the Black Cats, a 2-0 victory was achieved thanks to a superb rearguard effort from the Blackpool defence and a brace from in-form striker DJ Campbell. The FA Cup did provide a blot on their away record, as a second string side was defeated 2-0 by free scoring Southampton. The Tangerines have also completed the double against Liverpool this season, beating them 2-1 in last week’s match. However, for Blackpool to maintain their Premier League status, it is essential that they improve a miserly return of 11 points from a possible 24 in home fixtures.
In League Two, Morecambe continue to occupy a mid-table position with a reasonable buffer above the relegation zone. Sammy McIlroy’s men have won three of their last four league games, with the highlight being a 1-0 victory over high-flying Port Vale achieved thanks to a rare Kieran Charnock goal. The Shrimps have also won two games on the road, at Stockport and Shrewsbury, with the latter result being secured thanks to an unanswered three goal blast within the hour. This purple patch will have brought a smile to the face of manager Sammy McIlroy, who has admitted to local press that he approached the board offering to resign earlier in the season.
In non-league, Fleetwood have continued to hold their position in the play-offs of the Blue Square Premier. In their first season at this level in the club’s history, Mickey Mellon will be delighted that the rookies have shown such consistent form. The manager will not be too disappointed with an FA Trophy exit to Blyth Spartans as his side look to upset a number of former league clubs in the upper reaches of non-league’s top division. Indeed, things appear rosy for Fleetwood, who have shown they can compete with the best in a 1-1 draw with Newport County and bolstered their strike force with the £50,000 capture of George Donnelly from Plymouth.
Lancaster City are also on the verge of the play-offs thanks to their consistent league form. The Dolly Blues continue to impress on home soil, with wins against Woodley Sports and Durham City providing great entertainment for their loyal followers. With student tickets priced at just £5, why not take a trip to your local side this term and spur them on to a second successive play-off campaign?