Preston look to spirit of Finney in top-flight quest

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The warm glow of footballing romance and cold financial realism collide in today's Championship play-off final. Preston North End will be led out by Sir Tom Finney before striving to regain the top-flight status they surrendered 44 years ago. West Ham United know that a third season out of the Premiership, bringing an end to "parachute" payments of £6m per year, could prove calamitous for a club £30m in debt.

The warm glow of footballing romance and cold financial realism collide in today's Championship play-off final. Preston North End will be led out by Sir Tom Finney before striving to regain the top-flight status they surrendered 44 years ago. West Ham United know that a third season out of the Premiership, bringing an end to "parachute" payments of £6m per year, could prove calamitous for a club £30m in debt.

Promotion is worth a minimum £20m from television money, sponsorship and the other incentives that Preston crave and West Ham have lost. However, when the London side's manager, Alan Pardew, asserted that their fans would not hang around in the Millennium Stadium to applaud a gallant failure as Preston's would, he summed up the disparity between the clubs and the expectations surrounding them.

Preston have not even had a full season under the stewardship of Billy Davies, the former Motherwell manager who stepped up from a coaching role to replace the sacked Craig Brown last September. Unless they are humiliated in Cardiff - unlikely given that they beat West Ham twice in the regular campaign and finished above them - they are likely to feel they have had their best season since Finney patrolled the flanks.

West Ham, in contrast, could find their best players picked off if they again fall short. Matthew Etherington, Marlon Harewood, Mark Noble and Elliott Ward might follow the likes of Jermain Defoe out of the East End, along with the surviving high earners from their relegated side of 2003. Pardew's position, best described as precarious during the season's darker phases, would inevitably come under pressure.

And yet West Ham, with their larger fan base and more auspicious recent history (they came 10th in the Premiership in 1996 when Preston were in the old Fourth Division), are arguably favourites. While Davies has only three players left from the team that lost the 2001 final to Bolton Wanderers under his old Dunfermline colleague, David Moyes, Pardew plans to use the memory of last May's defeat in the Welsh capital by Crystal Palace as a motivational tool.

"There are three or four players from last time who'll be determined to perform better," the former Reading manager said. "I've got a better feeling in my gut about this year's final. Our spirit is genuinely strong, and the positive atmosphere around the team has been really encouraging."

Since their semi-final win over Ipswich Town, Pardew has had to keep his players "on the leash" in training to prevent late injury problems. The gap of nearly two weeks between games has enabled him to work hard on preparing for the way he expects Preston to play, paying particular attention to their set-piece prowess.

Davies, meanwhile, took Preston into Europe - to a training camp on the Algarve - after they saw off Derby County. Whereas West Ham's fans complain that they seldom play to their potential, the Scot talks of his team having "overachieved" all season. When one considers that their best-known players, Ricardo Fuller and David Healy, both left for "bigger" clubs, it is a claim based on fact rather than kidology.

He will look to David Nugent, the striker he bought from Bury for just £100,000, to confirm his vast promise, realising that Preston may struggle to keep the 20-year-old if they do not go up. But Davies, whose CV as a young player included Manchester United and Rangers, has been around long enough to understand that such games often turn on something that cannot be budgeted for.

"Hopefully, we'll get one or two breaks," he said. "As we saw with Rangers taking the Scottish title ahead of Celtic and Liverpool winning the Champions' League, you need those." Some believe the spirit of Shankly, a former Preston team-mate of Finney's, was shining on Istanbul. Maybe the presence of his favourite player can inspire a triumph to take Lancashire's representation in the Premiership to eight clubs.

Comments