A young man when he arrived, Alan Browne has certainly blossomed since he signed in January 2014. Browne left Cork City as an 18-year-old and came to North End while the club was in League One on an 18-month deal. Many North End fans, I think it’s safe to say, weren’t expecting much from the signing but here we are 4 and a half years down the line.
Little did we know just how valuable the youngster would grow to be for us. Initially, under Simon Grayson, Alan Browne and Josh Brownhill both broke through to the first team at around the same time and many penned Brownhill as the better of the two and were unhappy when the club let Josh Brownhill leave to Bristol City. As it is, we got a suitable compensation amount for Brownhill at the time and he’s gone on to do very well for Bristol City and has since been linked with big money moves to the Premier League.
Alan Browne in that time has had a similar trajectory at North End. He joined having not played a single first-team game for Cork City and there were a few fans questioning his signing but, almost from the get-go, he was given opportunities. When he joined he was always in and around the squad but only made his debut in March 2014 when he came on as a substitute against Peterborough United. He went on to make a further 7 appearances that season, scoring once in a 6-1 win against Carlisle United as we marched on to a 5th placed finish and got into the play-offs in which we lost in the semi-final against Rotherham United who went on to win the play-offs by beating Leyton Orient 4-3 on penalties in the final. Just a side note, that home game against Rotherham in the play-offs was when I saw the best goal that I have ever seen live at a football match. Oh Joey, I do miss you sometimes.
Now, the Championship was eventually the destination for young Alan and that came the following season. He made 20 appearances and scored 3 goals in the 2014/15 season as we came so close to going up automatically, missing out with a 1-0 defeat away at Colchester.
But things worked out differently for a reason in the end as I’m sure almost every North End fan will know what happened after that. We played Chesterfield in the play-offs and went away to their place and nicked a 1-0 win courtesy of a 6th minute Jermaine Beckford goal. 20-year-old Alan Browne appeared in the return fixture at Deepdale, coming on in the 53rd minute for Paul Gallagher. This was a game that, in the end, proved to be quite comfortable as we ran out 3-0 winners and got through to the play-off final at Wembley stadium. This all coming after Jermain Beckford scored the second-best goal that I’ve ever seen live at a football match.
Regardless, many North Enders didn’t have much hope considering our turgid record with play-off finals, but we made our way down to Wembley in droves and what a two weeks or so this would prove to be for the young Irishman. In his first full season in English football, he had made a significant number of appearances in a very competitive league, contributed in the play-off semi-finals and then played just under an hour at Wembley in the play-off final. A game we won 4-0 by the way and put our play-off curse to bed. Alan Browne was now a Championship player.
The Championship Beckons
Over the course of his first season in the Championship, Browne made 36 league appearances and again, managed to bag 3 goals. In his days under Simon Grayson, he was deployed as a run of the mill, at times slightly defensive central midfielder. He was a steady player but nothing special or particularly stand-out but, I guess that’s to be expected of a young 20-year-old who had never played at that level before. The following season he made 31 league appearances and scored no goals. A little underwhelming yes but again, he was still a young lad and learning his trade.
With the departure of Simon Grayson came a change in style for the young central midfielder as new North End boss Alex Neil brought with him a much more attacking style and this has really (in my opinion) brought the best out of Browne. At first, it came as a bit of a surprise that Alex Neil deployed Alan Browne in an advanced midfield/number 10 position, filling in just behind Jordan Hugill or Sean Maguire, depending on who was chosen to lead the line and since then, his game has developed enormously and he’s now one of the first names on the team sheet.
Neil coming into the club has seen a lot of players improve, not just the younger players like Callum Robinson, Jordan Storey and Ben Davies. Paul Gallagher has been one of the best performers for North End this season and he’ll be 35 come next season. Almost every aspect of Browne’s game has improved significantly under the guidance of the manager. One thing that he does incredibly well is to run past the last man and drag the opposition defence around. This then creates space for other players, usually Gallagher, who then has the time on the ball to work his magic.
Every now and then you will see Alan either score a beaut of a goal or come close to scoring one. He’s got quite the highlight reel but there are some things that stand-out about him and his technique. Aerially, he’s great, he gets his head over the ball well and oftentimes he is our target from goal kicks by drawing wide on the smallest fullback and then we play off that. His leap is powerful, and he’s scored a few headers in the past couple of seasons to back that up. One of those coming against Queens Park Rangers on the opening day of the season, our only win in the first 11 games. He rarely hits a shot off target and more often than not will bring a save out of the keeper and his technique on both the volley and the half volley is up there with the best in the league.
In terms of his positional sense and his ability to play an unfamiliar position, the number 10 role, he’s top drawer. He runs both lanes unlike most number 10s. For example, Josh Harrop tends to get drawn out to the left side and cuts back in on his right foot whereas Browne tends to get down both side and this creates a continuous headache for the opposition. On top of this, he quite often drops into an 8 role and will sit slightly deeper in a 4-1-4-1. This means that he tends to run from deep more but runs ahead of the ball less as opposed to progressing up the pitch with the ball and the reason he’s able to do this with ease is because of his exceptional fitness levels. Finally, he does this great thing, this great toch around the corner, he shifts his body weight and then touches the ball and leaves the defender behind, this is the way he won the free kick against Bristol City that lead to us taking the lead.
So, could you say Browne is a key player? Yes, absolutely he’s key. You can see in the games he hasn’t played this year how we have missed him. The way he presses the ball high up the pitch enables us to stay high and build from there and on top of this, his composure in the final third is great and his pass selection tends to be pretty solid too. His goal against Bristol City at home last season was a prime example of the technique we mentioned above but also shows how his composure has improved. He won the ball thanks to Darnell Fisher’s high press, but he saw that there wasn’t really much on in terms of pass options and took the shot on with the keeper off his line and had another goal to add to his collection.
Goals are key for Browne under Alex Neil. It’s one side of his game that he’s greatly improved since Simon Grayson departed. In his time under Grayson he scored 7 goals in 3 and a half seasons, last season he scored 7 and this season he has 11 totalling 18 in two seasons. Quite the turnaround and that is no coincidence, it’s all down to the style change and the position change from the manager.
Overall, I think it’s safe to say that Alan Browne has gone from a young kid that no fan was quite sure what he would turn into to not only one of but arguably the best player at the club this season. No fan could say anything different, surely? For me, he wins player of the year at the end of this campaign based purely off what he’s done up to now. To get 11 goals from midfield and not get half the plaudits that someone like Bradley Dack has is remarkable. For people to talk of Dack as being a £20 million player around January time and not mention Alan Browne in the same breath, considering he’s a full international and 2 years younger than Dack is absurd in my opinion.
Does Alan Browne stand a chance of playing the Premier League someday? Yes, absolutely he does. Let’s just hope it’s with North End and not after we’ve sold him on for big bucks. What’re your thoughts on the regal central midfielder? Get in touch on Facebook or Twitter and let us know your thoughts!