When Preston North End step out at Norwich City on Saturday manager Alan Irvine will be looking for a response from his players following his stinging criticism of their second half display against Southampton last week.

The Lilywhites led 2-0 at the interval but conceded three goals in the final 35 minutes to lose 3-2 and end the weekend lying 14th in the Coca-Cola Championship table when victory would have put them in seventh place.

Irvine labelled his team's performance as "unprofessional" and "careless," adding, "we turned victory into defeat in a totally unacceptable manner. It left me extremely unhappy and as frustrated as I've ever been since I came to the club."

Irvine has been in charge at Deepdale since November last year, leaving what he called "as secure a job as you can get" as assistant manager at Everton to take on a Championship survival battle with North End at the time in the relegation zone.

It took him a while to turn things round, but when he did so it was impressive - the Lilywhites climbed from bottom in January to end the season in 15th spot and then make such a good start to the new campaign that they were third in the table in mid-September.

"When I arrived at the club," Irvine admits, "I didn't have the instant reaction that some managers have, when teams suddenly go on a great run because of a change of voice in the running of the side.

"On January 12th we were bottom of the table and I reckoned we needed to win nine of our last 18 games. In fact we won nine of the next 14, it was automatic promotion form and then after a good pre-season we started the new campaign really well.

"Everything in those nine months had gone as well as I could have imagined, but when people started talking about us as promotion candidates I said, 'don't get carried away' because that would need a really dramatic turnaround from last year."

Preston did have a turnaround, but not the kind that Irvine wanted. Since winning four and drawing two of their first six League games they have lost seven of their last nine, taking just six points from a possible 27 to slide down the table.

"It's been extremely disappointing," says Irvine as he assesses recent results, "but I find it difficult to be really critical of my players because their attitude and work rate have been top class. We've got punished for mistakes though, and we have to aim to cut them out.

"We'll certainly be aiming to do that at Norwich, which is going to be a difficult match for us - not that there's anything less than a difficult match in the Championship. It's a very tight League and I don't expect anybody to run away with it.

"Wolves, Birmingham and Reading are leading the way at the moment but they've all been losing as well as winning games. The vast majority of the games we've played could have ended in a different result, including the ones we've won.

"So it's extremely difficult to make any predictions. We'll just aim to continue working hard, to do the things that brought us success from January to September, and if we do that consistently then we'll not be too far away come the end of the season."

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