Three wins in just 24 games does not make pretty reading for Nathan Jones’ time in charge of Stoke, but, in fairness to the beleagured Potters boss, there was little he could have done to prepare for the events that unfolded before his eyes at Deepdale on Tuesday.
Jack Butland, so heavily linked with the Premier League this summer, had a nightmare of an evening, gifting early goals to Daniel Johnson and Billy Bodin to hand Preston a 2-0 lead at half time, with Josh Harrop sealing the deal 20 minutes from time, in spite of James McClean’s late consolation for Stoke, who, for all the scrutiny that Butland will come under, once again struggled to show any semblance of a killer instinct when it really mattered.
It had been Stoke who briefly started the match on the front foot, with Preston ‘keeper Declan Rudd forced to punch away Danny Batth’s header across goal from a Tom Edwards corner, before Tom Ince fired low and wide from distance.
Inside ten minutes however, Preston had the lead.
Tom Barkhuizen broke down the right-hand side and, with his cut-back only being cleared away as far as the edge of the area, Johnson took a speculative, bouncing effort across the ground, which Butland could only get a hand to as it rolled agonisingly into the bottom right-hand corner.
If there could have been some suggestion that that one had been out of reach for the Stoke stopper, there was no escaping the fact that he should have done better with Preston’s second.
A long delivery into the Stoke area was punched away by Butland, but once again the clearance only reached the edge of the area, where Bodin was this time the man to hit a speculative effort across the ground, this one slipping straight through the hands of a despairing Butland into the back of the Stoke net.
Jones bemoaned his sides failure to take chances in the aftermath of his side’s draw with Derby on Saturday, and it will have been a similar sensation at the break, with Ince firing over from inside the area, before Preston’s defence stood strong to repel a flurry of crosses into their box in the final few minutes of the half.
Indeed Preston could have been even further before the break, some lovely linkup play on the left between Johnson and Rafferty allowed the latter to slip into the Stoke area, only for his effort to be deflected into the grateful hands of Butland, and there were audible boos from the away end as referee John Brooks blew his whistle for half time.
Once again it was Stoke who started the half the better again, but, once more, they were left to rue the apparent lack of a killer instinct.
After Scott Hogan headed wide from James McClean’s cross at the near post, it was two Stoke substitutes who almost made the impact for the visitors.
First, Nathan Collins header from a Tom Ince corner was cleared off the line by Patrick Bauer, and with the resulting corner from the other side of the pitch was worked across goal to Peter Etebo, the midfielder’s beautiful delivery into the area was seemingly missed at the back post by Ince, when a touch would surely have seen Stoke back into the game.
Minutes later, and with 20 left on the clock, the way back was seemingly closed once and for all.
Josh Harrop played a lovely through ball into the area for Johnson, and although Butland parried away the midfielder’s attempt for a second, it was Harrop himself who reacted quickest to tap home the rebound.
Despite the game seemingly being beyond them, Stoke continued to press, but their lack of a killer instinct continued to show, and was perhaps best epitomised when Edwards’ corner found Collins deep in the Preston area, only for the defender’s mis-hit shot to barely make it past the penalty spot before being comfortably cleared by the hosts.
The visitor’s pressure was eventually rewarded however, with as McClean tapped in a cross at the back post, which will have been little consolation to a Potters side who leave Deepdale rooted to the bottom of the early Championship standings, and with their manager seemingly bang under pressure.