The selfish amongst us might prefer Peterborough United to creep through the rest of January fluking 1-0 wins.
The ‘problem’ for a club (especially one with poor home attendances) playing scintillating football and delivering spectacular results is the outside attention the players inevitably attract. The first month of a new year is a time of great stress for managers and fans as clubs with a weaker summer scouting system, but with pots of money, will be on the prowl for bargains.
One can only imagine the blood pressure reading of the Posh bank manager when striker Conor Washington went down clutching his knee midway through the first-half. It could have been a three-million pound injury, but instead the former St Ives postman picked himself up and went on to deliver his 13th goal in his last 14 matches with a first-class header.
Washington has become the focal point of this splendid Posh side. His scoring record and his rapid improvement under the guidance of Graham Westley and Grant McCann demand the headlines, but his form also overshadows, slightly, some of the outstanding talents playing alongside him.
Midfielder Chris Forrester, a cool, calculating, classy midfielder, was watched by an Irish national team scout today and performed quite brilliantly thanks to his keen eye for a pass, sublime control and expert reading of the game. Right-back Michael Smith will also be pushing for an international call up for Northern Ireland if he maintains his current form - the cross for Washington’s goal was a peach as was the pass from Forrester that started the move - while central defender Jack Baldwin’s performance, for a man who was pretty much forced to sit on his backside for 14 months, was simply phenomenal.
This young side also performed well as a team today. They beat Championship side Preston deservedly, and quite comfortably, to gain a win which will also give them confidence for next season should the aim of promotion from League One be realised in the next few months. It also enabled Posh to reach the fourth round of the FA Cup for the first time in eight years - chairman Darragh MacAnnthony is one man who deserves a lucrative draw for having the patience to help build another exciting, vibrant team.
Preston are the complete opposite to Posh. They have a defensive, negative playing philosophy which has served them well under manager Simon Grayson, but if free admission was available to watch them across the street, one might still prefer to stay indoors and watch something more entertaining, or even a Manchester United match.
Grayson rested his star man and top scorer Daniel Johnson from this game. He also employed a five-man defensive line which was a peculiar tactic against a team who love to create pretty passing patterns in central areas and who love to shoot from distance. More midfielders not defenders is normally the way forward against Posh, but presumably the scouting report from Bramall Lane last week went unread as Westley’s men took full advantage of both the space in midfield and the Preston preference for defending on the edge of their own area.
It is of course a great compliment that teams keep changing systems and formations to combat a fantastically fluid midfield and the pace, power and goal-threat of Washington, but it took just seven minutes for Posh to open the scoring as on-loan teenager Martin Samuelsen, who won’t make Posh any transfer money, but could help them gain some promotion riches, let fly with his left foot from 22 yards. The ball whistled into the bottom corner of Chris Kirkland’s net to give Posh a crucial lead against a team lacking the firepower to guarantee a fightback.
It was the key moment in the game according to Westley. He might also have said the same about visiting striker Eoin Doyle losing control of the ball in the third minute when he looked certain to score after pouncing on strike partner Joe Garner’s headed flick, and when the same pair combined for another poor Doyle miss midway through the first-half. This time he shot over Ben Alnwick’s bar when clean through.
Preston, who increased their share of possession as the game wore on, didn’t threaten again until they were 2-0 down. A free header for Tom Clarke from a corner was nodded off the line by Smith, Baldwin’s head got in the way of a strike from lively substitute Callum Robinson that looked goal-bound and another replacement, Jordan Hugill, sent a very late free header straight at Alnwick.
Otherwise Posh found the mid-table Championship easy to contain even though they caused some self-inflicted jitters with their insistence on passing the ball around at the back. Preston didn’t start pressing Posh up the pitch until it was too late.
The second Posh goal eight minutes after the re-start did arrive against the run of play, but Westley’s men weathered the mild storm and created chances of their own late on. Ricardo Santos should have scored with a close-range header after Forrester had flicked on substitute Marcus Maddison’s corner, Washington cut inside and forced a decent save from Kirkland and substitute Soulemane Coulibaly spurned a late chance to play in unmarked team-mates by shooting over the bar instead.
Westley wore a huge grin at the end of the game. He was on the pitch glad-handing anyone in sight until he was comically carried off the turf by little Erhun Oztumer.
Make no mistake Westley would have enjoyed beating a club that fired him, but he maintained his pre-match dignity after the game with a composed, controlled press briefing.
He insisted his joy came from advancing in a competition he loves. His record at Posh ensures we will take him at his word.
Posh: Ben Alnwick, Michael Smith, Lawrie Wilson, Ricardo Santos, Jack Baldwin, Chris Forrester, Harry Beautyman, Erhun Oztumer (sub Marcus Maddison, 72 mins), Martin Samuelsen (sub Andrew Fox, 90 mins), Conor Washington, Lee Angol (sub Souleymane Coulibaly, 72 mins). Unused substitutes: Dion-Curtis Henry, Miles Addison, Jordan Nicholson, Harry Anderson.
Preston: Chris Kirkland, Marnick Vermijl, Greg Cunningham, Tom Clarke, Alan Browne, John Welsh (sub Paul Gallagher, 46 mins), Josh Brownhill (sub Callum Robinson, 56 mins), Paul Huntington, Adam Reach, Eoin Doyle (sub Jordan Hugill, 84 mins), Joe Garner, Unused substitutes: Matt Hudson, Bailey Wright, Neil Kilkenny, Calum Woods.
Goals: Posh; Samuelsen (7 mins), Washington (53 mins).
Cautions: Posh - Santos (foul), Forrester (delaying the re-start), Baldwin (foul).
Preston: Reach (foul), Clarke (foul).
Referee: Tony Harrington 5
Attendance: 7,665 (589 Preston)