With only eight games remaining, his team are still eight points away from safety but Phil Brown is not giving up on Preston North End's chances of Championship survival. It took the former Derby County and Hull City manager 12 league matches to record his first win with Preston, but a subsequent run of three successive victories has kept the flame of hope alive at Deepdale.
Saturday's 2-1 success at home to Swansea City was the most impressive so far. The Swans look secure in the play-off places and had begun the day only one point off an automatic promotion slot, but found themselves outplayed by a spirited Preston team.
While Crystal Palace's victory over Barnsley was a setback to his hopes of avoiding relegation, Brown could at least take heart as Preston had climbed off the bottom of the table. Palace, one place above the drop zone, are the team in his sights.
"I'm still refusing to look at league tables, but we have a four-team league table we have to finish on top of and if we do that we will stay in the Championship," he said. "The beauty of the victory today was that it was against one of the best football teams I've played against in the Championship."
The last two years have not been easy for Preston, who had grown accustomed to finishing in or around the play-off places until a gradual decline last season, which had followed a good start to the campaign. Alan Irvine's team were in third place after nine matches, but only eight victories in their next 37 saw them finish 17th, which was a sure sign of things to come this season. Irvine was replaced by Darren Ferguson in the middle of that run, but Sir Alex's son followed him out of the door less than 12 months later when he was sacked with Preston rooted to the bottom of the table at the end of December.
What Preston clearly need is stability. They have had financial troubles, having survived a winding-up petition from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs last summer, while events of the last 18 months have dented what used to be a reputation for giving managers time to make their mark. Gary Peters, David Moyes, Craig Brown and Billy Davies all enjoyed comparatively long runs in the Preston hot seat over the last two decades.
History hangs around Preston more than at most clubs, despite the closure last year of the National Football Museum, which is relocating to Manchester. The Lilywhites have played at Deepdale since their formation 130 years ago. Founder members of the Football League seven years later, Preston were the inaugural champions, going the whole season unbeaten, a feat finally equalled by Arsenal seven years ago. Like Arsène Wenger's team, Preston were criticised for containing too many imports, having brought a large number of players down from Scotland. A year later North End became the first club to win the Double.
Preston, who last played in the top flight exactly 50 years ago, were the first great team from football's stronghold in the north-west. Although they were overtaken long ago by the Merseyside and Manchester clubs, their supporters have had to watch in frustration as a succession of their historic rivals – Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley and Blackpool – have cemented revivals by winning places in the Premier League. There are currently eight teams from the north-west in the top flight, including Wigan Athletic, who had not even formed more than 40 years after Preston's Invincibles took the country by storm.
For the moment simply keeping a place in the second tier would be a major achievement, though Brown has been encouraged by recent performances. The recent international break, when Preston were missing only four players, gave the manager his first lengthy spell to work with his players on the training ground.
Preston's fate could well be sealed within the next week. Beginning with tomorrow's visit to promotion-chasing Reading, Brown's men face three away matches in the space of eight days, with trips to Portsmouth and Doncaster Rovers to follow. Their last five fixtures feature three home matches, against Sheffield United, Cardiff City and Watford, and visits to Millwall and Ipswich.