Any side chasing promotion are allowed one or two slip-ups in a season, but West Bromwich Albion's display against Preston North End was more of a fall than a mere blip. They were comprehensively beaten 3-0 and the performance was so dire their manager, Gary Megson, struggled to recall a worse display under his stewardship.
Megson described his side's non-performance on Saturday as "shambolic", and that it was. From the front, where Geoff Horsfield and Lee Hughes failed to make much impact, to the defensive nightmares of centre-backs Darren Moore, Thomas Gaardsoe and the former Deepdale favourite, Sean Gregan, Albion looked well off the pace that their second-place position demands.
"If that was the usual West Brom, we'd be bottom of the league," said a furious Megson after the game as his side slipped five points behind table-toppers Norwich. "It was shambolic, I can't remember us winning a tackle or a header. Sometimes as a manager you can say something like 'we didn't take out chances', but we didn't do anything well.
"Preston did everything better than we did without exception. Really, we were shocking. It's the most dejected I've been since I've been at the club. We were out-battled, out-fought, out-run and out-competed."
Yesterday, Megson cancelled a TV appearance on Sky's Goals on Sunday and his players' day off in favour of extra training.
A well struck free-kick from the impressive winger, Eddie Lewis, shortly after the half-hour mark heralded the collapse of West Brom, with David Healy and Graham Alexander completing the rout in the second half.
Alexander and Lewis ran the game on the flanks and with the tricky Ricardo Fuller leading the line with Healy, Preston looked comfortable despite the loss of their Nigerian midfielder, Dixon Etuhu, to a serious injury after just six minutes. Michael Keane came into the midfield and he was far from mere back-up as he pulled the strings.
West Brom's fight faded when Paul Robinson fouled Fuller on the edge of the area and from the resulting free-kick, the American international Lewis put Preston ahead. Healy doubled their lead by drilling home Fuller's pass and Alexander deservedly struck home a penalty after Gaardsoe had handled in the area.
"We are in a good position and we have a chance," said the Preston manager, Craig Brown, whose side could theoretically go fourth should they win their game in hand, the re-arranged fixture against their fellow promotion hopefuls Sunderland. "We played well against West Brom and apart from the Wigan game we have played very well at home recently."
Preston's young goalkeeper, Andrew Lonergan, making his first start since the 2000-01 season, played his part with superb second-half saves from a Gaardsoe header and a Robinson shot, while Hughes and Horsfield should have tested the impressive 20-year-old, only to fire wide.
Goals: Lewis (33) 1-0; Healy (75) 2-0; Alexander pen (87) 3-0.
Preston North End (4-4-2): Lonergan; Jackson, Broomes, Mears, Alexander; Lewis (Edwards, 85), McKenna (Burley, 89), Healy, Etuhu (Keane, 6); Fuller, Cresswell. Substitutes not used: Gould (gk), Abbott.
West Bromwich Albion (3-5-2): Hoult; Gaardsoe, Moore, Gregan; Haas, Johnson, Kinsella (Dyer, 63), Clement (Koumas, 63), Robinson; Horsfield, Hughes (Skoubo, 72). Substitutes not used: Murphy (gk), J Chambers.
Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees).
Bookings: Preston: Healy. West Brom: Robinson.
Man of the match: Lewis.