When referee David Webb blew his whistle for full time at Craven Cottage on Saturday afternoon, you would have forgiven the majority of those associated with Preston North End for simply being relieved that the week’s action had come to an end.
Having suffered a 2-0 defeat away at league leaders West Brom a few nights before, another loss by that same scoreline at another automatic promotion hopeful, Fulham, meant that Preston had seen a decent opportunity to stake their own claim for a place in the top two this season come and go with little more than a rescinded red card for right-back Darnell Fisher to take from those matches.
Admittedly, with all five of the teams directly below Preston in the Championship table – Bristol City, Blackburn, Swansea, Millwall and Cardiff – all also failing to pick up a single win between them in those two games, it is North End who stay sixth in the second-tier standings, with a place in the play-offs still in their hands despite a chastening week.
Keeping themselves in that position to claim a place in the end of season promotion lottery however, is something that for the time being at least, North End will have to do without one of their key figures across the course of the campaign so far.
Speaking in the aftermath of that loss at Craven Cottage, Preston manager Alex Neil revealed that holding midfielder Ben Pearson is facing up to a month on the sidelines with an injury that had kept him out of that trip to the capital, leaving the club without the services of one of their standout players at such a key stage of the season.
Up until now, Pearson has been a dominant figure in the centre of the park for North End this season, helping them to control games, and making it incredibly difficult for opposition teams to impose themselves on Preston in the same way.
This injury therefore, looks as though it could pose a significant problem for North End in the race for the play-offs over the next few weeks.
But while Preston will have been desperate not to lose such an important figure as Pearson for such a crucial stage of the season, they do at least have the slight advantage of being – to some extent at least – prepared for such a loss.
Having racked up an almost impressive tally of 14 yellow and three red cards in the league across the course of last season, Preston are at least aware of what the challenge of playing without Pearson will be like, given the midfielder missed no fewer than 16 Championship outings during the course of that campaign, thanks in no small part to the suspensions he accrued as a result of that disciplinary action against him.
However, although they may be well aware of what the challenge of playing without Pearson is like, there are likely to be more questions about whether they are able to overcome that challenge.
Worryingly for Preston, 13 of their 16 league wins last season came in the 30 games in which Pearson did feature, in comparison to just three wins in the 16 games without him, meaning that their win rate dropped from 43.3% to 18.75% when the holding midfielder was out of the side.
Indeed, Preston also conceded almost as many goals (31) in the 16 league games Pearson missed last season, as they did in the 30 in which he did feature (36), while their average of over 1.5 goals per game in games featuring Pearson, fell to less than 1.2 per game when the midfielder was absent, further highlighting the level to which they appeared to struggle without their chief enforcer in the centre of the park.
This season, Preston may at least take some encouragement from the fact that they have won three of the four games they have played in the league this, with victories on home soil over Brentford and struggling duo Huddersfield and Charlton proceeding that defeat at Fulham.
But with the pressure building at this stage of the season and every side in the Championship upping their game in an attempt to achieve their respective aims this season, it remains to be seen whether North End will be able to cope without Pearson for an extended period of time – the midfielder has yet to miss back to back games this season – meaning it could be argued that this challenge will be the biggest North End have had to take on without their midfield catalyst this season.
With a home clash with QPR followed by a trip to relegation-threatened – and somewhat recently resurgent – Luton and visits from play-off dark horses Cardiff and Derby to Deepdale to come between now and the end of the month, there will be a few tricky tasks for Preston to negotiate between now and Pearson’s anticipated return.
Now, with the losses on and off the pitch last week leaving North End’s position somewhat under threat, it seems they will have had to learn the lessons of the loss of Pearson last season if they are to start the month as they ended it – with a play-off position still within their grasp.