Is this the (Preston North) End of any play-off hopes?

In a season that threatened to offer so much for Preston North End, a 2-1 loss at home to struggling Stoke has seemingly put the final nail in the coffin of any play-off aspirations that they may have had.

The defeat, which came as a result of an 87th minute winner from Stoke’s Luke McNally, leaves Ryan Lowe’s side in ninth place, five points adrift of the top six.

The loss ended a run of seven games unbeaten, which included wins against Ipswich and Coventry and a draw against high-flyers Hull City.

With sides like Norwich, Coventry and West Bromwich Albion all in better form than the north westerners, it means that they are highly unlikely to make it into the semi finals, especially with games against the aforementioned Norwich, West Brom and Leicester still to come, even if they do have a game in hand on the teams around them.

If they do fail to make it into the Championship playoffs, it will extend their run outside of the top six to at least 16 years since they made the semi-finals in 2009, where they were edged out 2-1 on aggregate by Sheffield United.

Since returning to the Championship in 2015/16 after relegation in 2010/11, the club have finished in the top 10 just twice (with their highest finish being seventh) whilst they have finished in 11th (twice), 12th, 13th (twice) and 14th.

It is well known that the Deepdale team often start the season well before tailing off and eventually finishing outside of the playoffs, but why is this?

Budget and FFP

One of the reasons why they may struggle to make it into the top 6 is because of the fact that they have one of the smaller budgets and wage bills in the entirety of the Championship.

According to TransferMarkt, they rank 16th when it comes to money spent in the 2023/24 season, with the Lilywhites spending an estimated 3.84 million euros on transfers, with Leicester topping the table having spent 44.10 million euros on transfers this season.

In addition, they rank in a similar position when it comes to estimated annual wage bill- according to Capology, they have the eighth lowest wage bill in the entire division, with only Coventry above them in the league yet below them when it comes to wages.

Given these numbers, it appears that the Lancashire-based side are working on a shoestring budget, something which can be backed up by quotes from Ryan Lowe and director at the club Peter Ridsdale, who, ahead of the January transfer window, said that the club were struggling with Financial Fair Play Regulations and so would be forced to spend only a small amount.

Preston were seven games unbeaten going into their game against Stoke City

Under Financial Fair Play regulations, clubs are allowed to lose only £39 million over a three year period, even if the 2020/21 COVID season does allow for some breathing space because of the widespread losses across English football due to the closure of stadiums around the country.

Ridsdale said: “”Our challenge is to stay under that. This year particularly, it is really tough. We will manage it, just. And it is that tight. The reason for that is that it’s a three year, rolling average and the first year of the three is Covid year.

“We lost a substantial amount of money during Covid year, which drops off next year. So, years one, two and three are a challenge to us because of year one. We will just stay within it, hopefully, fingers crossed.”

Parachute Payments

Another reason as to why Preston may be struggling to make it out of the second tier is because of an issue that almost every established Championship side- parachute payments.

Parachute payments are sums of money that are given to sides relegated from the Premier League to help them adjust to lower revenue in the Championship for up to three years and has been worth around £30 million on average in recent years.

The reason that this proves to be an issue is because it gives these sides an automatic advantage over the other sides already in the league, a point which has been evident this season given that three of the current top four sides in the division were relegated from the Premier League last season in Leicester, Leeds and Southampton.

Preston fans will be hoping they can overcome the challenges facing them

On parachute payments, EFL chairman Rick Parry said: “The impact of these payments on the competitive balance of the Championship, and on the sustainability of all other clubs, is a major concern for the EFL.

“The issue of parachute payments remains one of the main reasons why so many football clubs are financially unsustainable and why the Premier League and EFL have not yet agreed the football-led solution that both the Fan Led Review and White Paper have called for.”

Having historically spent minimally in recent years, Preston have struggled to compete with sides that have been relegated from the top tier, with sides such as Norwich, Fulham, and Bournemouth benefitting from parachute payments to make it back to the Premier League in the last decade.

Record against fellow contenders

At least this season, Preston have struggled massively against sides that are above them in the league, games that are often crucial for sides who want to fight at the top of the division.

This season, North End have only won four games against sides above them in the table to date, a win rate of just 33.3%, a record which is far from ideal for a side aiming to be competing at the top of the table.

This is not just the case this season either- for example, PNE only won 6 games against sides that finished above them, a win rate of just 27.3%, which shows that they have struggled to keep up with sides above them in recent times.

Preston have struggled to overcome the sides around them this season

The narrative that they start the season strong and tend to tail off can also be backed up by last season- they only won 8 of their last 21 games from January 1 onwards, which included a run of five games without a win at the end of the season that all but ended their playoff hopes.

Before the 42nd game of the season, Ryan Lowe’s side were in 7th place, level on points with 6th placed Blackburn and 5th placed Millwall, with an opportunity to beat those two sides before a final day showdown against fellow play-off hopefuls Sunderland.

However, their run at the end of the season meant they were out of contention before the final game of the season, and they ended up finishing 12th.

Despite these factors counting against Preston North End, there is still a chance that they make it into the play-offs, although they will have to overcome their final two fixtures against promotion chasing Leicester and West Brom.

PNE’s remaining games

  • Sat 16 March– Plymouth Argyle (A)
  • Fri 29 March– Rotherham United (H)
  • Mon 1 April– Birmingham City (A)
  • Sat 6 April– Watford (A)
  • Tue 9 April– Huddersfield Town (H)
  • Sat 13 April– Norwich City (H)
  • Sat 20 April– Queens Park Rangers (A)
  • Sat 27 April– Leicester City (H)
  • Sat 4 May– West Bromwich Albion (A)