As we approached the final stage of the season, North End has seven huge games ahead of them. Six of them would come in April and the Sky cameras arrived to broadcast our first.
Derby County arrived at Deepdale on Easter Monday with the intent to frustrate, and that’s what they did. The Rams set up to counter PNE and the Lilywhites duly dominated the game. Derby took the three points with a 1-0 win but there was fortune in their goal, with little created during the game it was a set piece that broke the deadlock, Tom Lawrence scoring from a free kick.
The free kick came after North End had been awarded a penalty in the first half, Alan Browne, who had confidently scored three previously, unfortunately hit the outside of the post with his effort.
Moving on from the frustration of the defeat to Derby, PNE travelled to Reading but it was another unfortunate result for Alex Neil’s men. The Royals’ Mo Barrow’s goal was the hosts only shot on target throughout the 90 minutes. A free kick from the right of the 18 yard box was crossed in and flicked on at the near post, where the striker was waiting and nodded past Declan Rudd. PNE were creating chances, hitting the post and the bar, but were unable to find the back of the net.
An upturn in form followed, as PNE finished the season off unbeaten in five, starting with a comfortable win over Leeds United at Deepdale.
The visitors took the lead when Kalvin Phillips made a run down the right and fired a low ball across the face of goal which an in-form Kemar Roofe lashed home.
Both teams were creating but Billy Bodin went the closest to adding a third goal of the game before the break, his feint back inside saw an attempt bend, but not far enough as he hit the post.
After the break, Bodin would have his hand in North End’s first goal. Beating Vurnon Anita with his trickery, the Welshman was pulled down and PNE were awarded a penalty.
Gallagher, in his usual style prepped the ball, walked away, charged back at it and coolly slotted it into the right hand corner. From goal scorer to provider in just three minutes, the relentless pressure from PNE became too much for Leeds very quickly.
A corner was cleared but the ball was recycled back to Gallagher, his first time cross was delightful, with pace and curling he found an on-rushing Sean Maguire who broke the offside trap to glance a header beyond Peacock-Farrell.
It was a similar story for the third, as PNE continued to dominate, Callum Robinson made half a yard down the left, jinking and putting a ball into the box for Alan Browne to throw himself at and find the net. Increasing his highest ever goals total in a season to seven, so far.
A tough trip to the capital was next for North End, and every game really was must win. QPR were the hosts, with a track record throughout the season for upsetting the higher placed teams.
It looked like that may have been on the cards early on for the Rs. Just under a quarter of an hour into the game, Ryan Manning’s free kick was cleared back to the Galwegian, his second attempt found Matt Smith at the far post who met it to poke past Rudd.
North End equalised through Callum Robinson. Billy Bodin had the ball at the edge of the box and an overlapping run from Darnell Fisher had the full back as the furthest forward player in green. His cross from the corner of the six yard box found Robinson who stabbed it home, beyond the Rangers 'keeper.
In the second half, North End’s class showed, bossing proceedings and creating plenty of chances. Their dominance would pay off, Gallagher crossing for Alan Browne who, similar to his headers previously in the season, rose exceptionally high to beat the defenders and the 'keeper. Although Callum Robinson did his best to help him finish it off, it went down as Browne's goal.
For the penultimate home game of the season, the visitors were the manager's former team Norwich City. As shown by QPR, teams with little to play for in the league at this stage opted for a more fluid approach, making them unpredictable.
PNE had the better of the chances on the day, with Paul Gallagher hitting the crossbar from a free kick and Billy Bodin bending an effort just past the post, but the game would end goalless. Leaving two must win games with PNE still in with a chance of the Play-Offs as others were falling away.
As it was make or break for PNE, it was for Sheffield United too. One team had to win, and neither would settle for anything less, but for the loser, their Play-Off hopes would be over. To make matters harder, North End were travelling to Bramall Lane.
As Alex Neil’s men had shown already though, their resilience and resolve was nothing but formidable. The home side weren’t without their chances but the Lilywhites threw their bodies in front of everything, inlcuding Declan Rudd to stop Leon Clarke from point blank range.
The second half would reward North End’s grit, Josh Harrop’s dipping effort too much to handle and Alan Browne sped in to slide the rebound home. PNE held on to their lead, playing on the break, with Callum Robinson having a chance later on in the game, but they would end the Blades’ chances of the Play-Offs. It would go down to the last day.
Going into the final game of the season, and at the end of April, PNE were seventh. The Lilywhites were just two points outside of the Play-Off places with Derby in sixth and North End were the only team able to replace them in the top six. Goal difference was in the Rams' favour and relegation-threatened Barnsley required a win for both themselves and PNE.
Burton Albion were the visitors on the final day, they were also relegation-threatened and they needed a Derby win to give themselves a chance of remaining in the second tier.
The fans came to Deepdale in their numbers to support the players in the final game of the season.
The occasion also marked the departure of John Welsh after six years at the club. A hugely popular figure in PR1, Welsh was given a guard of honour and received a special presentation from the club prior to kick-off. A true leader of PNE, Welsh made almost 200 appearances as he was a part of the club’s journey from League One back into the top half of the Championship.
After a slightly nervy start to the game with plenty at stake for both sides, two chances half way through the first half began to open up the game. Both sides needed a win and began playing more expansive football, offering space for both themselves and the opposition.
Marvin Sordell had the opening chance but Declan Rudd held his ground well and used his frame to block the forward’s attempt. Callum Robinson also saw an effort one-on-one saved, but the latter would go one better in due time. Just a minute later Josh Harrop’s corner was headed back across goal by Paul Huntington for the No.37 to nod home.
PNE pressure followed and the Brewers managed to weather the storm, struggling to cope with the gulf in quality between the two sides.
The game would change just into the second half however, Billy Bodin saw red for a second bookable offence. Burton made use of their extra man and levelled the game.
Hope Akpan curling his shot past Rudd form the edge of the box. Due to results elsewhere, the visitors were throwing everything at PNE.
As they did, chances were offered to the home side. Breaks of three or four players were just about avoided without further damages before Burton’s League One status was confirmed.
On another such break, Ben Pearson drove forward, picking the ball up just inside the Burton half with only the ‘keepr to beat. With Louis Moult in support, the midfielder selflessly squared the ball for a tap-in for the striker.
The season ended in a win for PNE as Alex Neil's men did everything they could to climb in to the top six, but unfortunately for the Lilywhites a resounding win for Derby kept them on course for a Play-Off campaign.
Sean Maguire ended the season as PNE’s top scorer with ten goals, Callum Robinson and Tom Barkhuizen providing the most goals, with seven each. Ben Pearson and Darnell Fisher both received the most bookings with 14 yellow cards each. Paul Huntington played the most minutes in a North End shirt over the course of the season racking up 3916 minutes.
Ben Pearson also made the most tackles in the North End squad, completing 109; also completing the most passes, 400 ahead of the next best, with 1,889 successful passes throughout the 2017/18 campaign. In terms of key passes, Paul Gallagher provided 65 for his teammates, the highest in the squad.
On the defensive front, Paul Huntington led the total number of clearances and interceptions with 299 and 76 respectively. Hunts also won the most headers in the squad, 80 clear of Jordan Hugill in second, with 235 successful aerial challenges.
With stiff competition between the sticks this season, Chris Maxwell made 59 saves in his 30 appearances whilst Declan Rudd made 37 in his 16.
Alan Browne completed a hat-trick of awards after the final game, picking up the Sir Tom Finney Award for Player of the Year, the Players’ Player of the Year and the Goal of the Season – for his long range effort against Cardiff.
Ben Davies was named Young Player of the Year and the departing John Welsh was named Community Player of the Year.
After two seasons of 11th place finishes, PNE made a huge step during the 2017/18 season. A young squad adapted well to the change of personnel, both on the pitch and off it, and took massive responsibility in the squad. The togetherness of the squad brought everyone closer, inside and outside of the club.
Alex Neil’s exciting style of football brought better results with it, and the aim next season is to go one better.
Be a part of it next season with a 2018/19 season card! Full details can be found here.