'They're on our turf – we have to compete': Behind the scenes as Preston tried to shock Spurs
Ryan Lowe is alone with me in his office. It is just a couple of minutes to the 6pm kick-off for the prestigious FA Cup fourth round tie against Tottenham Hotspur. The Preston North End manager places a jade bracelet, made by his daughter, on his wrist and a lucky glass Buddha in his pocket. He glances at the TV screen. “It is really jumping inside Deepdale,” says BBC presenter Gary Lineker.
As he puts on his jacket, Lowe smiles. “Come on, let’s do it,” he says and I follow him left, then right, then left again down the tight corridor and up and out through the tunnel. As Lowe emerges Elvis Presley’s Can’t Helping Falling in Love is playing over the PA system amid the dazzle of the floodlights, the steady rain and the guttural, unmistakable roar of anticipation.
At 5.51pm Lowe had been in the home dressing room. The detailed tactical plan was laid out; the preparation was done. The team is ready. Lowe calls everyone together in a huge huddle, with him in the middle. “Get your arms around each other,” Lowe bellows. The buzzer goes, warning it is almost time to go out.
“Right, listen in,” Lowe says. “These opportunities don’t come around very often. You are playing against top opposition. Respect them, but don’t fear them, right? What I expect from you is fight and togetherness. If you get fight and togetherness I expect you to f------ get a result.
“Don’t leave anything out there and you will get something out of this game. You have the belief. The f------ belief. You are not just rolling over. You are going out with a bit of passion and you are getting right after them. All agree! Let’s go to work.”
There is a roar.
Two hours later Preston may be out of the competition but it has taken two world-class goals from a world-class player, Son Heung-Min, to finally overcome the meticulous gameplan devised over the past week by Lowe and his driven coaching staff. For 50 minutes it worked almost to a tee with Tottenham increasingly frustrated and Preston growing into the tie. As planned they had reduced Spurs to long-range efforts and were starting to threaten. Unfortunately one of those long-range efforts was unstoppable. “Son bangs one in from 30 yards,” Lowe later ruefully says. No tactical plan can stop that.
An unlucky third goal, a mishit from Spurs' new signing Arnaut Danjuma, means the final 3-0 scoreline feels brutally harsh on Preston who have only the 19th biggest budget in the Championship as owner Craig Hemmings juggles the finances and tries to make the famous old club sustainable again. But they are just two points outside the play-offs – they were 19th and just above relegation when Lowe took over – and are punching far above their weight under Lowe.
The impressive manager already has two promotions behind him and plans to end Preston’s 62-year exile from the top-flight. Lowe makes no secret about it: the Premier League is where he wants to be, citing Jurgen Klopp, Brendan Rodgers and Pep Guardiola among his influences.
“We are proud of our work – the coaches, the players,” Lowe says, which is why he and Preston director Peter Ridsdale have allowed Telegraph Sport an access-all-areas pass to the cup tie, to be in home dressing room before the game, at half-time and afterwards as well as at their training ground, going through their plans.
This is the exclusive inside story of what happened as 44-year-old Lowe and his team pitted their wits against the mighty resources of Antonio Conte’s Tottenham.
'None of my staff are yes men. They all have an opinion'
It is 9am on Friday. Lowe calls his staff together in his office at Preston’s training ground for their daily meeting. Physio Matt Jackson reports that 20 players are fit to train before John Lucas, the head of physical performance, runs through the schedule. “Lads in at 9.15am. Breakfast until 9.45am. Analysis until 10.20am. Activation 10.30am. Start training at 11am. Lunch at 12.15pm,” Lucas says.
“And tomorrow?” asks Lowe.
“4.30pm report [at the stadium]. Keep it normal. I will send out a text this afternoon,” Lucas says. “The kick-off time is just a bit later.”
“Marshy what are you going to do?” Lowe says.
Mike Marsh is the first-team coach. The 53-year-old former Liverpool midfielder only started working with Lowe when the latter left Plymouth Argyle and took over at Preston in December 2021.
Lowe’s management career has led to him being talked about. A former striker, scoring more than 200 goals, he took over Bury, where he was a hero after three spells at the club, in the final months of its existence and still gained them promotion from League Two playing progressive, attacking football.
The last time Gigg Lane was used was for their promotion party with Lowe moving to Plymouth, also earning them promotion to League One where they were riding high, also overhauling their playing style, before leaving for Preston.
The highly-rated Marsh, who is vastly experienced and has coached at Liverpool, Swansea City and with the England Under-17s, was recommended by Plymouth’s technical director Neil Dewsnip. “He [Marsh] was round my house within 15 minutes and we talked for two and a half hours and drunk a lot of tea,” Lowe, a fellow Liverpudlian, later says. “We are on the same wavelength with our football philosophies but he is no yes man. None of my staff are. They all have an opinion and that’s what I want.”
Marsh and Lowe divide coaching duties with the former Preston midfielder Paul Gallagher, the other first-team coach. On Thursday, Marsh worked the players hard on what to do against Spurs out of possession. Today Lowe will take them through what they need to do with the ball.
“The gameplan?” Lowe says. “We normally play 3-5-2 with a No 4 [holding] and two running No 8s."
This set-up is so ingrained that on the training pitch there are two tramlines marked for the players to run inside as corridors. "But because it’s Tottenham," Lowe says, "we will play with a flat three in the midfield.”
There is a discussion over how effective League One Portsmouth where in stifling Spurs in the previous round, when they only lost 1-0, and whether Harry Kane, who has been suffering from illness, will play.
Lowe says it is a key role for analyst Ben Smith to try and predict the opposition team. “We watch Conte and see what he says, any hints he gives,” Lowe explains.
'We are underdogs but it is not a free hit'
It is 9.30am. The players are sat around one long oblong table having breakfast. The main topic of discussion? Who is watching Love Island and who is “bang on The Traitors” as defender Andy Hughes puts it. Next to the dining area is a large games room, complete with a full-size snooker table with players milling around it.
As the coaches wait in the windowless presentation room for the players to arrive for a set-piece meeting Lowe asks if any have asked why I am there. “One or two,” I reply. “I bet it was Greg Cunningham,” he says, laughing. It was indeed the inquisitive Republic of Ireland international.
“I keep the videos to two and a half minutes,” Lowe explains. “Short and sharp. Me and Marshy. But because it’s Tottenham it will be four minutes this time.”
“And we don’t want to scare them,” Marsh says dryly – meaning his own players.
When Marsh is ready, Smith runs the first video. “It’s an exciting challenge and in a nice way,” Marsh says as he shows clips of Spurs' attacking corners and set-pieces from their games against Crystal Palace, Fulham and Aston Villa.
“We are underdogs but it is not a free hit,” Lowe adds. “But it is a showcase for us.”
A key ploy is to try and get in behind Spurs’ wing-backs.
It is now 10.30am in Preston’s gym and Ms. Jackson by OutKast is blasting out as Lucas oversees the "activation" session with the players on fixed bikes, wobbleboards and using rollers to stretch. Spirits are high. Lowe goes over and speaks to a few individually – Ryan Ledson, Robbie Brady – before they gather outside at 11am with Gallagher going through some exercises.
“Make it look easy, come on,” he shouts and as he smartly demonstrates a drill involving chesting the ball down, taking it on his thigh and then half-volleying it there is a collective “wooo” from the players. “Come on Liam, what have you got!” Gallagher shouts to 19-year-old striker Liam Delap, on loan from Manchester City, who is unfortunately cup-tied.
Lowe observes and then it is his turn. He sets the players out to work on creating chances and finishing. On Thursday, when the team became clear, it was Marsh’s domain and defensive shape: staying compact, showing Spurs the outside, pushing them wide and away from goal. Now it was about how Preston can win the tie.
“Touch off your feet, take your wing-back out of play and get your cross in,” Lowe shouts as he quickly shuttles from side to side, running, demanding a higher tempo – and sharper delivery.
They move on to corners and free-kicks and the threat posed by Brady and Alan Browne is clear. Near post; then far. Time and again. “We will take that one,” Lowe shouts approvingly as a glancing header flies across goal and into the net from Brady. “Browney now a deep one for Linds [Liam Lindsey],” Lowe demands as he holds a ball above his head at the far post. On the other side he tells Brady: “Robbie put some snow on it”. And the delivery is pin-point with another header into the net. There is even a round of applause with Brady acknowledging it with a smile and a bow.
When the session finishes Lowe calls the squad together. “We are not here to make the numbers up,” he tells them. “We are at home and will give a good account of ourselves. No ifs or maybes. We will respect them but will not fear them.”
'Make sure our shape is right'
It is 12.45pm and the attacking unit meeting is about to start. “Is Troy in here?” Lowe asks with 20-year-old Troy Parrott – on loan from Spurs and therefore ineligible to play – not yet in the room. Jokingly he adds: “Don’t worry, he will tell Tottenham!”
“I tell you now and I tell you every week – front shoulder marking,” Marsh barks during the first meeting with the midfielders and forwards. “You lose the first one and you are in a world of pain. So win the f------ first one, right?”
Lowe says: “So let’s look at some attacking opportunities – and target their wing-backs in the air.” He stresses the need for the midfielders to pick and choose when they “jump” [press the opposition].
Soon the strikers file out and the defenders arrive. “Make sure our shape is right,” Lowe says before showing clips from last weekend’s 2-1 win over Birmingham. “Track runners, stop crosses,” he says and he highlights the compact shape that Portsmouth kept.
“If Portsmouth can deal with that, then so can f------ we,” he says. “Jump at the right time. Organise each other. As you can see nice and compact. Strikers dropping in. Be aggressive one v one. Keep your shape. Don’t panic. They will drop into pockets, no problem. Track runners.”
When training is over, Lowe has lunch with his coaches and after he has gone through some paperwork, made sure everything is set for the game and met with Ridsdale, who is based at the training ground, he heads home. At 6.30pm Lowe, who played professionally until he was 39 but gained his coaching badges in his 30s, will play five-a-side for an hour with his friends back in Liverpool – “to take my mind off it. The prep is done”.
'They are a Premier League side but they are vulnerable'
It is 4.30pm on Saturday in the manager’s office, adjacent to the players’ entrance at Deepdale, and Sky Sports Soccer Saturday is playing in the background; running through the 3pm kick-offs. “Kane is in the building,” Lowe says, smiling, as his staff, including goalkeeping coach Mike Pollitt, sit around. “You can’t see for all the bags,” Gallagher says, laughing at the mound of kit outside the away dressing room.
Ten minutes later Lowe strides into the home dressing room for the first time. The door is locked behind him and the lights are turned off. The mood is suddenly very serious as he goes through the final tactical preparations on the screen. Phrases flash up and he articulately fleshes out the detail: Build the Attack; Finish the Attack; Transitions.
“If we are going long to Ched [striker Ched Evans] give him a chance,” Lowe says. “Don’t make it a fight ball. The big thing for me today is when we are on the ball give us options. Do not leave him isolated. Don’t turn down shots on the edge of the box and don’t turn down crossing opportunities…They are a Premier League team, but I have seen they are vulnerable.”
With that he leaves and returns to his office.
'They are on our turf. We have to compete with them'
A key moment arrives. The team-sheet is delivered. “Go on then, footy bingo,” Marsh says. “Seven,” Smith replies as he updates the line-up on his laptop. He has predicted seven of Spurs's 11 correctly and there is surprise that Kane is among the substitutes. Marsh chips in, with heavy irony: “Nothing to fear if they get angry, have you seen the bench?”
Lowe says: “Son down the centre, do you reckon?” And there is a general nod of agreement. “He [Conte] won’t change shape, will he?” Lowe adds. “Then stick to the gameplan.” With that he goes through the final set of slides with Smith, altering a few key words. “Be brave on the ball; attitude; application” and then Lowe adds: “Last one: belief… no, take out application. Put: simplicity”.
It is 5pm. The Spurs team is on the screen in the home dressing room. Cunningham is looking at it. “You can stare at it as long as you want,” says goalkeeper Freddie Woodman, smiling. “It won’t change.”
At 5.15pm Lowe and his staff sweep in. Again the door is locked. Again the lights are turned off.
“We know what they are. They are 3-4-3,” Lowe says as he goes through the Spurs team with a line summing up each player’s strength – Son “wants to attack 1 v 1. Cuts inside on his right foot” – and weakness – Clement Lenglet “will be left exposed in transition”.
Lowe adds: “Kulusevski, Perisic, Son. “But f--- it. It’s what they are. They are on our turf. They are here. We have to compete with them. Make sure you win your first duel…. And I will leave you with this: have a bit of f------ belief.”
At 5.19pm it is lights back on and Lowe leaves. The music is cranked up. Back in the manager’s office the BBC coverage includes black and white footage of Preston’s previous cup exploits. “That’s you,” Lowe says to Gallagher.
'Get one chance and we will score'
It is half-time. The game is goalless. The plan is working. The flatter midfield three has stifled Spurs who are struggling to find space. Preston’s shape is good except Lowe is a little disappointed that they have not carried a greater threat of their own. Easier said than done against such strong opposition but the tactics have proved to be spot-on as Lowe makes notes.
“Anything in possession?” he asks. “When we get on the ball make a few more passes,” Gallagher says. “We are crossing from too deep,” Marsh adds: “TC [Tom Cannon, the 20-year-old striker loan from Everton] has got to get closer to Ched.”
They head towards the dressing room. Again Lowe’s instructions are quick, detailed and on point. “If the back lads have got it make sure there is some availability, ok? We will have opportunities to play at the right times. Don’t snatch at it. You are defending great but let’s be a bit more clever with the ball. The patterns are on, the little dinks in behind. But it needs a bit more quality.
“Don’t rush your passes. There is the safety net of Fred to go back, ok? Trust me now, we are going to score. Get one chance and we will score. Come on then.”
'Let’s get back to collecting points in the Championship'
The game is over. Preston 0 Tottenham 3. It looks one-sided. It is tough to take. Except it has taken two goals of the highest quality from Son, curling the ball with his apparently weaker left-foot beyond Woodman, and then spinning off Jordan Storey to again beat the goalkeeper, and Danjuma’s fortunate debut goal, to beat them. “When you look at the scoresheet it looks like a comfortable win,” Son later says. “But we suffered a lot away from home.”
Preston did make it difficult and they did get the chance that Lowe had said they would. At 1-0 it was well-worked, following the training ground pattern, and fell to Ben Whiteman but his shot flew agonisingly and narrowly wide. “If that goes in the ascendancy might be with us,” Lowe argues.
Back in the dressing room there is one final address to the players before they head home. “Get your heads up,” Lowe says although the disappointment around him is obvious. “It’s done. We’ve had the moment. Live on TV. I am sure you will all have a few more Instagram followers, especially the youngsters! It is what it is, ok? Listen, back to work. We recover, rest and back in Monday. We have 17 games [in the Championship] to have a f------ good crack at it. We all said it after the Birmingham game. Let’s get back to collecting points in the Championship. We move on. Yeah, happy? Good lads.”
Lowe’s work is not yet done. He goes around the room from player to player, congratulating them, talking to each one, before finding the time to go through a tactical ploy with Brady and Hughes next to the whiteboard. As Lowe talks the chef serves chicken teriyaki wraps while Parrott chats to Son in the corridor.
Finally Lowe and I are alone again, outside his office.
“Our application was fantastic. We are trying to achieve something to take this football club to the next level and that’s what the next level looks like,” he says. “We are not quite there yet. We will keep doing the right things to get there.
“It gave me the taste of the atmosphere when the big boys turn up. That was like a Premier League game. We were never going to win the FA Cup but we have had a good go at competing against a top team with top players.”