Preston North End are currently enduring a concerning dip in form at a crucial stage in the season, with the Lilywhites having lost three successive matches against promotion rivals West Bromwich Albion and Fulham, whilst also losing 3-1 at home to Queens Park Rangers on Saturday.
Those three defeats coupled with their 1-0 loss against Millwall at Deepdale few weeks ago, means that Preston have managed to collect just three points from the last 15 available, a run that they can ill afford to continue over the final nine matches of the campaign.
However, despite that run of form Preston have still managed to hang on to sixth place, with seventh placed Bristol City a point further back, after the Robins have failed to win any of their last five Championship matches.
The Lilywhites’ loss of form, though, has allowed other teams behind them in the table to close the gap, with only six points separating them from 12th placed QPR, which means that there are arguably at least nine teams from Brentford, in fourth, downwards all in the race for the play-offs.
At this stage in the season, it is vital that teams in and around the Championship’s top six places manage to draw upon whatever advantages they hold over the sides around them.
One key advantage for the Lilywhites is that they are still in the driving seat with nine matches remaining given they are still in sixth place in the table, despite their dip in form.
The remit for Preston is a simple one, keep picking up consistent results between now and the end of the season and they will achieve a top six finish come the end of the campaign, but that in itself will not be an easy task and will involve them turning around their form swiftly.
Out of the teams in and around them in the table Preston still have to play the likes of Cardiff City, Nottingham Forest and Brentford, before what could be a dramatic final day showdown at Bristol City – and that means that Neil’s side could deal some serious damage to their rivals, but also suffer some potentially decisive setbacks.
One factor that will stand Preston in good stead in the end of the season run in though, is the fact that Neil has previous experience of getting a side over the line in the race for promotion, with the 38-year-old having guided Norwich City to promotion via the play-offs in the 2014/15 season.
That means that Neil is one of only two managers of sides currently in the top half of the league who has managed to guide a side to promotion from the Championship, with Blackburn Rovers manager Tony Mowbray also doing so whilst in charge of West Brom.
There are of course reasons why other managers in and around the promotion mix have not experienced promotion from the Championship before, with the likes of Slaven Bilic, Sabri Lamouchi, Scott Parker and Steve Cooper having never managed in the English second tier before the start of this season.
For the rest of the managers, though, there still remains doubt that they have not been able to get their sides over the line in previous seasons, with that factor felt strongest at clubs such as Leeds United, after what happened last term, and Bristol City after they also fell away under Lee Johnson last campaign.
In Neil then, Preston have a manager who they can look to for past experience of how to get over the line in the race for promotion, which whilst not offering a guarantee of success, certainly should inspire some all-important confidence in the players.
There is also less of an expectation on the Lilywhites to ensure they finish at least in the play-offs this term, than there perhaps is on the likes of Fulham, Bristol City and Nottingham Forest, which means that Neil’s side can perhaps relax a little more than those sides and take each game as it comes.
Preston have looked a side who have potentially been affected by pressure over the last few weeks, but the Lilywhites will need draw on Neil’s experience and get back to the sort of form they were showing at the start of February, which they will need to do starting with their trip to Luton Town on Saturday.
Experience of a manager is of course not enough to suggest that Preston will manage to earn promotion through the play-offs, but it is something which separates them from some of their rivals – and at this stage it is the small differences between sides that have the largest impact on the final league table.