Football: Moyes creates united front

Stoke City 0 Preston North End 1

MICHAEL JACKSON, the match-winner on a day that was more chiller than thriller, had no sooner revealed that David Moyes "never lets us get away with anything" than the Preston manager himself offered an eerily similar insight into why Alex Ferguson reputedly covets him as as his assistant and possible successor.

Moyes, plucked from the playing ranks in January when Preston lay 17th in the Second Division, was asked after a vital win at Stoke how a largely unchanged squad had become promotion contenders. There was no magic formula, he said, but the players had shown greater professionalism by training both mornings and afternoons. Tellingly, he added: "They don't get away with much."

That the grey eminence of Manchester United and the flame-haired Moyes share a Glaswegian brogue and background is a neat coincidence, but no more. If there is any basis to reports that Ferguson is interested in the 35-year-old former Celtic defender as a replacement for Brian Kidd, it will be because of the accent both men place on discipline and the work ethic as the platform for attacking flair.

For all the talk of getting away with things, Preston's status as the section's leading scorers indicates that Moyes prefers to accentuate the positive. Stoke were still adjusting to the conditions when Jackson's header from a corner breached their normally tight defence. Their inability to respond as they did at Deepdale, where they won 4-3 after trailing 3-1, prevented the top three clubs from breaking away.

Victory would have enabled Stoke to open a 10-point lead on their visitors. Instead, they go into their final fixture of 1998, at Manchester City today, only four ahead. More pertinently, Fulham and Walsall have pushed them from first place to third during a miserable month in which three League matches and an FA Cup tie have failed to produce a single goal.

True, it took a save of breathtaking quality by David Lucas from Peter Thorne's last-minute overhead kick to deny Stoke their first score-draw in 38 games. However, while they were unfortunate that Preston had the gale at their backs at its most ferocious, there can be no doubt that Brian Little's team would benefit from new blood.

Little put Stoke's disappointment in perspective by noting that most of their fans - who comprised all but 4,000 of Saturday's biggest crowd outside the Premiership - would have settled after relegation in May for being only a few points off the pace at the halfway stage. But in order to fulfil the expectations he has raised, the man who paid pounds 7m for Stan Collymore must be allowed to spend for the first time in six months at the club.

Bryan Small, the wing-back who was with him at Villa, demonstrated that is still possible to unearth gems at the free-transfer end of the market by twice racing back to execute textbook tackles on opponents who had been sent clear. Yet the fact that a midfielder, Graham Kavanagh, is Stoke's joint top scorer with six goals highlights a weakness which could even see them being squeezed out of the play-off places unless addressed soon.

One felt particularly sorry for the Potteries exiles from South Africa and the United States who were welcomed by the public-address announcer before the match. They may not have expected anything to remind them that Stoke and Preston gave the world Matthews and Finney; neither can they have anticipated an afternoon of such unrelenting grimness.

Not that those who made the less arduous journey back to Lancashire would have shared that impression. These are exciting times for Preston, who receive Arsenal, the FA Cup holders, in the third round a week tonight. The only cloud on the horizon is the one threatening to blow in from the direction of Old Trafford.

In the meantime, Moyes is fending off enquiries with a straight bat that could open for Scotland. "I'm very flattered to be linked with a club like that," he said, "but there's been no contact and I don't expect any."

Goal: Jackson (7) 0-1.

Stoke City (3-5-2): Muggleton; L Sigurdsson, Robinson, Woods (Crowe, h-t); Petty, Oldfield, Kavanagh, Keen, Small; Thorne, Lightbourne. Substitutes not used: Heath, Sturridge.

Preston North End (4-4-2): Lucas; Parkinson, Jackson, Murdock, Kidd; Cartwright, Gregan, Rankine, Eyres; Byfield (Nogan, 61), Macken (Harris, 89). Substitute not used: Appleton.

Referee: G Franklin (Middlesbrough). Bookings: Stoke: Sigurdsson, Small; Preston: Gregan, Macken, Cartwright.

Man of the match: Gregan.

Attendance: 23,272.

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