After a summer which saw another English national side make the semi-final of a football world cup for the second year in a row, the attention shifts back to the English Football League as Preston North End are the visitors for the opening day of the EFL Championship.
Neil Harris promised an upheaval in his squad at the conclusion of the disappointing 2018-19 campaign and many players who had gone from hero to zero have now departed the club and been replaced with players of real Championship experience and quality. The preseason has shown that the Lions now have a squad that seems to have more depth at this level and those who Harris kept in his team seem to be playing with a brand new enthusiasm.
Alex Neil brings a team who although finished in 14th place last year, were one of the more stellar sides who came to The Den and really gave Millwall a bit of a pasting. Proving then they can pick apart any team on their day, the Lilywhites will be looking to improve on their previous head-to-heads with Millwall and start the season with an away victory.
Haven't we met before?...
Millwall 1-3 Preston North End, Saturday 23rd February 2019 - Preston were the better side in this game from the opening minute and goals from Andrew Hughes, Tom Clarke and Sean Maguire in the opening 27 minutes saw Millwall face an impossible task before the first half was even over. Ben Thompson managed to spare some of the blushes for the home side with his goal in the 67th minute, but in truth, Millwall were never really in the game and North End were worthy winners.
The Lions have a fully fit squad to choose from, so both Frank Fielding and Bartosz Bialkowski will be looking to start the game in goal for Millwall. Jiri Skalak is a player that the home fans have been excitingly talking about during the summer and the player who only featured sporadically last season is pushing for a league start.
Preston have a few missing from their line-ups and the return of David Nugent will have to wait a week whilst the experienced forward recovers from a knee injury. Former Charlton man Patrick Bauer will look to start the game and will be keen to impress against a home crowd that may give him a tough afternoon.
THE ONE TO WATCH -
It's been an amazing preseason for the wide man and the goal he scored against Real Sociedad in the home 3-3 draw left the fans jaw-dropped. Mahoney impressed on loan last season at Birmingham CIty and the former AFC Bournemouth man will look to replicate last seasons form in South Bermondsey.
WHO ARE YA?
For this weeks 'Who are ya?' we sit down with Stephanie Lambert from the Preston North End Fans Forum. This week we ask Stephanie how preseason went for the Lilywhites, how proud did she feel when her club accommodated a young Bolton fan when a friendly was cancelled and who Millwall need to look out for.
1. It’s been an up and down pre-season for Preston, but you got some important minutes in. How did the summer go for North End?
Definitely full of up and downs but I honestly do believe that preseason is a time for trial and error – We lost Callum Robinson brought in Bauer, Nugent and now Green. So it is all about chopping and changing the squad to see what works and what doesn’t. I’d rather them get that out of the way in games where the result doesn’t really matter than try it when 3pts are on the line. I feel at times a few of our fans focus too much on the result and can fail to see the bigger picture. We have had a few returning players from long-term injury like Harrop and Bodin and shorter term injuries with Fisher, Hughes, Potts etc. It’s a great time to be reintegrating those lads and get them up to speed. So I am not too concerned in terms of results. I thought the preseason schedule was quite successful in terms of preparations. We are still doing work to bring more players in and I can see a few more in before the window closes. I am happy with the 3 lads that have come in and have every confidence that they are great additions to our squad however we do definitely need a few more additions, if the rumours about potential incomings are true – I would be very pleased with business this summer.
2. One game in particular that was cancelled was the fixture with Bolton, but your club kindly organised for the young Bolton fan to be mascot anyway. How did that make you feel about your club that they were so accommodating?
Proud. There is a reason why we have the name “Proud Preston” and a reason behind Gentry day. Preston have always been a club of morals – we pride ourselves in the way we treat both home and opposition fans especially those that have been caught up in the crisis at Bolton. I am sure I speak for the majority of our fans when I say the banter is all well and good but you never want to see a local club on its knees. This is football and we are all here for the same thing, the same experience just with different teams – When things like this happen to a club the divide of the different teams becomes unimportant really because you realise it could quite easily be our club and our fans and if it was we would hope our neighbours would do the same for us. We are just fortunate to have the backroom staff that we do because we are not very different to Bolton so the fact we are competing like we are is a sure sign that those people in the back are doing a terrific job – Some may say they actually don’t receive the kind of credit they deserve. Burnley would be a great example of how Preston aspire to do business and I think that they have done a great job of getting to where they are now. Its horrible to see what’s happening at Bolton and really highlights the issues we face in the Championship and leagues below with the financial gap between the Prem and clubs like ours, Bolton, Blackburn, Wigan even Blackpool. Any club that doesn’t quite pull in the revenue are doing a great job if they are keeping their heads above water in such a volatile environment. We don’t have the luxury of having millions to spend on players or a huge capacity stadium, its hard to attract new fans because they can go down the road and watch teams like Man City, Liverpool, Man Utd, Everton Ect. with world class players for not much difference in price. Gone are the days where you supported your home town club ad that was that. So for clubs like ours, it can be hard – So you can sympathise with Bolton because we are so similar and I hope our club continue to act in a way that sets the bar for every club out there in terms of respect for others clubs, its players and its fans.
3. A lot of talk around the club is of the return of a Mr Nugent. How good does it feel seeing him in a Preston shirt again?
It brings back some good, good memories. He was a star when he was last at Deepdale and there was always a special connection between Nugent and the club. Every single transfer window you would see his name being mentioned. It had to happen. I know he probably isn’t going to be a constant starter for us but his experience is indispensable. He has been there and done it all before he is a championship veteran with bags and bags of experience. So goals aside that kind of experience amongst our relatively young squad is definitely not going to do us any harm. We lacked those experienced heads last season and relied primarily on Gallagher for that role and that was telling you can see a lot of the lads look up to Gallagher and respect him and his performances on the field suggest that also. So we are hoping for a similar story with Nugent really it’s a bonus if he can bag a few for us and I am sure he will – He definitely knows where the net is and as a North End fan I feel a bit of unfinished business with Nuge, in his times at Deepdale we nearly reached the promise land a couple of occasions but it just didn’t happen. If it happens with Nugent in the squad it’s written in the stars for him really, every fans ultimate dream of getting to Wembley and seeing Nugent smack the winner in the 90th min, a journalists dream story but obviously that is just fantasy as a football fan but that’s the kind of atmosphere and buzz he brings to our fans so the signing is good for the stands as well as the field and the dressing room. Super happy, I never believed it would ever happen.
4. Alex Neil has built a good team who had just missed out on the play-offs last year. Do you think you can go one better this season?
I have faith. He is creating something good here. He believes in the lads and the lads believe in him and that’s telling really. I think at times our fans need to believe in the squad a little more – studieshave proved a significant difference in levels of performance from their players if they are backed by their fans. Of course, everyone’s entitled to their opinion but at times with some of the things I read from some of our fans I think – Imagine being a player and reading that. Can we honestly criticize the teams performance if we are not doing all that we can as fans to support them? I am unsure. Especially when our squad is as young as it is, these sorts of things can really effect a player and I don’t want to be the one to negatively effect any of our players. They are young, they are growing, they need encouragement and they need that little bit of confidence to go that one bit further. I truly do believe the squad is capable of big things but I do also believe it doesn’t just end at the 11 on the pitch, it extends to the fans too. If we all do everything we can – I am confident we can do one better this season. The league this year is probably the most competitive it has been for years, its wide open and anything can happen. It’s almost a lottery this year and to get that winning ticket you have to give yourselves the best chance in every aspect. The lads must perform and the fans have to do their bit too. It is a league of fine margins in the Championship. I am excited to have a fully fit squad, we had a torrid time with injuries last season and I believe that was the difference between us and getting a play off spot. It is critical this year to get the balance right between overworking and overcautiousness and keep all of our squad fit. If we do that I have every faith we can.
5. The game at the The Den last year saw Preston dominate and arguably should’ve had more goals. Can you see a repeat in this game?
It was a result that I really was not expecting if I am honest. The Den is a notoriously difficult ground to travel to. Millwall fans can make some noise on their day and they certainly let you know that it is the lions den that you are playing in. True to my answer before – I think a big factor in that win was the fact we dominated which in turn took Millwall fans out the game, they went quiet and it made it easier for us to play. We probably should have been more clinical that day but I am not taking that result as a sure sign we are going to come and do it again, big defeats happen in football time to time due to a whole catalogue of different reasons. I am sure that our squad wont be thinking about that result now and I am sure your lads wont be either. If anything its going to be harder for us because I am sure your lads will want to put that right and not let it happen again. So I can imagine it to be a scrappy affair especially as it is the first game back for us both. Though, I wont complain if we witness a repeat.
6. Who do Millwall need to look out for?
Strange to say this now as I have a few players that were not part of the team last season but have come back from injury or additions that I believe will have big impacts on our season. So some new people to be aware of I would say Billy Bodin, he is a winger with bags of potential, he is fast, knows where the goal is and is technically gifted. He was a huge loss to us at the start of last season but he is back now and we know what he is capable of, he is a handful and I would hate to be the one marking him. He is versatile in his approach so you just can’t predict what he is going to do. He knows how to cut in, he knows how to break, he knows how to cross and his trickery is unreal so every time he gets the ball, I get the sense our fans believe something special may happen. It will be interesting to see his impact in a competitive game. That is, if he starts. He was subbed in preseason for hyperextending his knee slightly but from what we hear it was precautionary, he is fit and he is in training.
Another player is Patrick Bauer, not seen a great deal of him but from what I have seen, though he is a defender he seems a real presence in box boxes already getting on the score sheet for us in preseason he is definitely one you will want to mark in set pieces.
Some names you have probably heard before will be Ben Pearson and Alan Browne, both do very different jobs Pearson is an extra wall in front of our defence and will do anything in his power to stop moves and his pressing and ability to regain possession is outstanding. Both players are both part of the engine room in midfield just at opposite ends. Whereas Pearson is defensive, Browne has that in his game but also has great attacking ability, we have a joke between fans that Browne only scores worldies and its true all of his goals last season are spectacular. He is efficient and is pivotal to how we play. He does a lot of the unsung work and then comes out with moments of magic.
7. What do you think the score will be?
Its going to be tough for both sides. My football head tells me that typically not many goals are scored in the first day of the season so I would be inclined to go for a 1-1 draw but the North End in me tells me 2-1, So true to my team I will go 2-1 to North End.
PREDICTION: MILLWALL 1-1 PRESTON NORTH END
The Championship is a tough league and Millwall would not have been too delighted to face the team who did the double over them last season in their first game. With that said, The Den will be rocking and Millwall will want to put on a show for their home fans, but I think a score draw will be the final result on the opening day.
Come on you Lions.