Managing to succeed in the Championship
On a midweek night in late September Preston North End manager Alan Irvine drove down to South Wales to watch Swansea play Cardiff in a Carling Cup fixture.
Nothing unusual in that you might think, as it gave Irvine the chance to check up on the form of two rival teams.
Except that the game was live on television and the 50-year-old Scot could surely have saved himself the bother of a round trip that was close to 500 miles?
"You only see what the television shows you," Irvine told me as he explained why he made the long journey into Wales. "There is no substitute for going to games."
Irvine does not watch games as a supporter normally does, following the ball, but is looking for things that might give his team an edge.
Is one player particularly weak defensively? Do they adopt their defensive shape quickly when they lose the ball? How do they line up when defending, or indeed taking, corners?
It is all part of the rigorous attention to detail that Irvine hopes will allow his team to compete at the right end of a division in which they cannot compete financially with many of their rivals.
"It is vitally important that we don't leave anything to chance," added the wily Scot.
"We can deal with our financial disadvantage by making sure that we are right in everything else we do."
This reminds me of the approach adopted by David Moyes, who cut his managerial teeth during a successful four-year period as manager at Preston when he took the team from League One to the brink of the Premier League.
And this perhaps in part explains why the two men formed such an effective team at Everton, where Moyes took over as manager in 2002 and brought Irvine as his assistant.
Moyes and Irvine, both Glaswegians, are hard working, innovative on the training field, thorough in their decision making and possessed of a fierce desire to succeed.
The two men often speak several times a week, but one year ago, on 20 November, Irvine left Everton's training ground at Finch Farm for the last time and drove across Lancashire to step out on his own and see whether he cut could it as a number one.
Preston had recently sacked Paul Simpson after a disappointing start to the season and Irvine found himself in charge of a team 21st in the table.
It was undoubtedly a gamble. In footballing terms Irvine, previously academy director at Blackburn and Newcastle, had a secure job as a well-respected coach at a club enjoying a good season.
"It was a big decision," Irvine told me. "But it was too good an opportunity to turn down and I still believe that."
The 50-year-old might have had good cause to wonder whether he had made the right move in the early months of his tenure.
North End lost seven of Irvine's first 10 games in charge and by 19 January propped up the table. The manager sat down, looked at the fixtures and set his team a target.
"There were 18 games left and I worked out we had to win nine - and that is promotion form," said Irvine, who could recall instantly the exact date when North End hit the bottom of the table.
Preston won nine of the next 14 and avoided the drop, a fate that would have been a financial disaster for the Lancashire club.
Irvine had not panicked during the difficult early months and, although relieved, did not become carried away by the spectacular up-turn in form. It testified to his strong character and hinted at the role he had played at Everton.
"At Everton, David involved me in decisions he made," said Irvine. "I was involved in planning, training sessions, our team play and the signing of players. I had second-hand experience of management and so there were not really any major surprises once I became manager at Deepdale."
Yes, there had been more pressure, but that was not something that frightened Irvine and when I asked him whether he worked more hours now he was a manager in his own right, the Scot suggested that he probably did more during his time as academy boss at Newcastle. Besides, as he said: "I'm not someone who looks at the clock. You work until the job is done."
Preston's players certainly remarked that they had been heavily worked during pre-season, with skipper Paul McKenna claiming it had been the hardest in his decade at the club.
It seemed to have paid dividends as North End started the season in winning form, sitting second in the table after six games. Supporters quickly sensed something special but the manager was keen to curb their enthusiasm, or at least their burgeoning optimism.
"People accused me of trying to play something down," said the Scot. "I kept saying that it is a long and hard season and that we would go through some tough spells."
He was right - and the manner of North End's decline brought home to Irvine some of the differences between the Premier League and the Championship.
After a six-game unbeaten start, PNE lost six of the next seven, starting with a demoralising home defeat at the hands of fellow high-flyers Wolves.
"That was probably the hardest spell I have had to endure and it is because we have made too many costly mistakes," said Irvine.
The principles Irvine imparts to his players are more or less the same as at Everton but the quality of execution and the number of individual errors is different. "It is what separates the top players from the other. Every level you go down you see more of them," concluded Irvine.
Squads are often smaller in the Championship and a series of injuries early in the season restricted Irvine's ability to change a struggling side. But on the flip side, Irvine is now a manager in a league that still retains the capacity to surprise.
"This is a tough league with not much between the teams," he told me. "I think all of our results this season could have gone another way."
Irvine's final game before his first anniversary was a morale-boosting 3-1 win at local rivals Blackpool.
He thinks his team should be higher up the league but knows that there is still everything to play for. Preston are 13th but just four points off the play-offs.
"In the Premier League you probably know the top four before the season starts but in the Championship you know that if you get it right you have a chance."