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Joe Garner and Preston North End marching towards the Championship

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ast Saturday, Preston North End and Joe Garner sent a loud message to the rest of the League One promotion chasing pack that they are the team all the others will have to top to reach the Championship.

Garner hit four of North End’s five in the 5-1 thrashing of Crewe Alexandra, and in so doing became the first Preston player to net four times in a game since Alex Bruce scored four against Colchester in 1978. When you factor in only 17 players in the club’s 135 year history have scored four in one match, it gives some indication of the kind of goal scorer ‘diamond’ Simon Grayson can call upon.

The four goals against Crewe, from only four attempts, took Garner’s tally for the season so far to 20, in just 30 games, one every game and a half. When you factor in that the striker, a boyhood North End supporter, missed 10 weeks of the current campaign through injury one can only guess at what his tally would have been.

His goals against the Alex were all very different; from his well timed header to a close range snap-shot and a fourth that was a tap in after Jermaine Beckford’s shot came back from the post. The way he completed his hat trick was perhaps the best indicator of all as to his potential to reach the top flight.

Daniel Johnson, highlighted previously on Proven Quality, laid the ball in to Garner, who was on the corner of the penalty area, with his back to goal. Fully aware of where he was and more importantly the goal, a quick shrug of the hips and a sharp turn enabled Joe to delicately lob the ball over a flailing goalkeeper to claim the match ball.

Garner is a poacher of goals as well as a player with great awareness of all that is around him. He reads the position of those around him, teammates and opponents alike, superbly. He is very mobile and, as with all really good scorers, is hungry. He is never satisfied, as was proven against Crewe. While many players would have settled for the hat trick Joe was on hand to claim his easiest goal, a fourth on the day, a tap in.

He might have had even more goals as on one or two occasions he went down in the penalty area. That is the only obstacle to his progress as a top striker – the fact that, on occasion, he does go down a little too easily. That is beginning to earn him a reputation, and one referees are showing they are more than aware of. Pound to a penny Simon Grayson will advise his player to eradicate that from his game and Preston can only benefit from that.

Last season Joe Garner scored 24 goals in all competitions, 18 of them in League One. His scoring not only earned North End a place in the play-offs but two personal awards; Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year. He is on course to better last campaign as Preston sit very nicely in second place behind runaway leaders Bristol City. They are a couple of points clear of third placed Swindon but with a game in hand. Joe is also the top League One player for shots on target, with 48.

Preston have the best defensive record in League One with just 31 goals conceded in 35 games. Since the start of February the team has lost just once, to Manchester United, in the FA Cup. They have managed eight wins and a draw in the league and there is another major factor that makes them the team to watch as the promotion push reaches the critical Easter period. I have seen Preston a number of times this season and have noted not only an improvement in their all round play plus a propensity to have their goals shared around the team, but their organisation stands out like a beacon pointing the way to the Championship.

Whoever is selected by the manager, that player carries out the duties required of him in the position for which he is selected. The team tends to maintain its shape whether 5-1 up or 3-1 down. They take the rough with the smooth and don’t dwell on mistakes. Preston play through the bad patches and keep feet well and truly on the ground during the good times. Simon Grayson sees to that and the reward might well be Championship football next season.

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