When Paul Gallagher arrived at Deepdale August 31st 2007, few people probably envisaged him still playing in Lilywhite 12 years later. In that dozen years, the once capped Scotland playmaker has represented Stoke, Blackburn, Plymouth, Leicester and Sheffield United, before eventually returning to North End in late 2013. What a journey it has been up to now for Gallagher, both in footballing terms and personally. Now 34, he can look back at what has been a brilliant career, whilst knowing he still has plenty to offer this young PNE side.
Gallagher first arrived as a highly rated 23-year-old attacker from Lancashire neighbours Blackburn Rovers, where he grew up. At the time it was considered quite the coup for Preston, with Gally already racking up around 30 Premier League appearances and a full Championship season with Stoke City, not to mention a few UEFA Cup appearances – a CV not be sniffed at for someone joining North End. Gallagher arrived 3 weeks after David Nugent left the club for a club record £6 million fee, joining Karl Hawley and Andy Carroll as new recruits, alongside Brett Ormerod and Neil Mellor.
The season started under Paul Simpson, but he was soon to be replaced by Alan Irvine after a run of poor results. Gally scored in his second appearance for PNE, the winner at home to Sheffield Wednesday, but that proved to be his only goal in the loan spell, which ended in January after 19 appearances. Perhaps the change around the club at the time didn’t do him any favours, with Alan Irvine clearly not fancying him, but it was a disappointing spell for someone who had joined with such a good reputation. Despite his failings in front of goal, Gally managed to register 5 assists in his 19-game spell, which was a clear foresight of things to come in his career – the master assister.
Some folk labelled him as a “luxury player” who perhaps lacked heart, and that tag stuck with him until quite recently, with some fans simply preferring tough tackling, aggressive players, instead of players who rely on their technique. Perhaps at this point we can draw comparisons to Lukas Nmecha’s loan spell this season – he also arrived with high expectation from a local Premier League club, and he has struggled in front of goal whilst contributing 6 assists, and he has also been tagged as a luxury player who doesn’t really care – similar to Gally in his first spell.
After his North End spell, Gallagher returned to Stoke City for the second half of the 2007/8 season, playing a small part in their promotion to the Premier League as they finished 2nd under the guidance of Tony Pulis. However, it was the 2008/9 season that Gallagher really broke though, scoring 13 goals and a further 4 assists in a Plymouth side that finished 21st in the league, essentially saving them from relegation.
That form tempted Leicester to sign him from Blackburn for an undisclosed fee, and that would be where the now well-travelled loanee would finally settle down and forge a settled career for himself. Gally would go on to play 137 games at the King Power stadium, scoring 28 goals and assisting a further 28, showing a good mix of creativity and goal scoring prowess, something he has done in his second spell at Deepdale. It was at Leicester that Gallagher became renowned for his set piece delivery, with manager Sven-Göran Eriksson saying he was “not far from David Beckham in terms of his delivery of set pieces” – high praise indeed and I’m sure most North End fans would now agree with the former England manager. It is often the left footers who are described as being “cultured”, but that certainly applies to Paul Gallagher – one of the most cultured right footers I’ve seen in English football, and that includes the Premier League.
After a successful few seasons for the Foxes, tragedy struck for Gallagher and his family in 2012, after his baby twins were born prematurely. Tragically, his baby son Luca passed away, whilst his twin sister Ava was in intensive care for months, but thankfully survived and made a full recovery. Most people probably cannot imagine what going through such a harrowing event must feel like, but Gallagher is no stranger to family tragedy, with his younger brother Daniel being cruelly taken by meningitis aged just 9 months old, when Paul was just 7. Overcoming two personal tragedies has had a profound effect on Gallagher’s life, with him saying that he has “come through grief a stronger, and hopefully better person”. I’m sure that anybody who’s had the pleasure of meeting him would agree that he is a gentleman of the highest order, and his effect on the younger players in the dressing room must be a huge positive. Fittingly, every time he scores a goal, Gallagher points up to the skies and dedicates it to his son, Luca.
Gallagher’s second spell at North End came about partly due to the tragedy that he was going through, with the Lancashire lad wanting to play his football closer to home. Nigel Pearson, Leicester manager at the time, agreed to let him join Simon Grayson’s PNE side towards the end of 2013 and the rest, as they say, is history.
When Gally re-joined, it was again seen as somewhat of a coup for North End, as he possessed quality easily above League One level, and had played in the Championship or above for all his career. Instantly, you could see his quality on the ball and from dead ball situations, and it gave the hard-working PNE side an important touch of class that carried them into the play offs. In the 2013/14 season, Gally recorded 10 goals and 12 assists for the Lilywhites, including the opener in the play-off semi-final away at Rotherham, direct from a free kick.
22 goal contributions is a phenomenal return for any non-striker, especially considering he only joined at the end of October. It was clear then that Gallagher had matured immensely since his first spell, and was clearly the classy player in the division, easily capable of contributing higher up the football pyramid. Gally offered versatility to the side when he came in, playing in a range of positions and off both flanks, as well as in a free role behind two strikers in Grayson’s 3-4-1-2 system. He predominantly played off the left though, with his in-swinging delivery a nightmare for opposition defenders, and he formed a great partnership with fellow Blackburn graduate Joe Garner – arguably the best partnership in League One for those couple of seasons – 4 of Gally’s 12 assists in 2013/14 were for Garner. North End’s season ended in play-off heartache, but it was a great season for Gallagher who managed to get his career back on track.
North End somehow managed to borrow Gallagher again in 2014/15, with the rumour being that he told Leicester it was “Preston or nowhere”. How thankful Preston were, with Gallagher having an impeccable season as the Lilywhites finally tasted Play Off success at the 10th attempt. The playmaker played 59 games that season, featuring in every League game, with 13 goals and an astonishing 21 assists in all competitions – 34 goal contributions. Joe Garner and Jermaine Beckford took most of the headlines that season, but with Gallagher pulling the strings and dictating games, I have no doubt PNE would’ve struggled to find the same link between midfield and attack. Gallagher was priceless that season.
Also in that season, Gallagher became the first player in English football to make 100 appearances for a club, all on loan. Some would argue he’s the best loan signing the club have made, I’d be inclined to agree. At a time when I thought North End were in danger of getting bogged down in the third tier, Paul Gallagher came along and added real quality to an already well drilled, functional side. Essentially, he was the missing piece.
After over 100 loan appearances, PNE finally signed him up on a permanent basis in summer 2015, 8 years after his debut, as they embarked on their first Championship season since 2010/11. Long overdue, and it felt like he was already a PNE player, but it was nice to have him tied down on a permanent basis, and I’m sure he felt the same. Since then, Gallagher has played a huge role in all 4 of North End’s successful seasons, and now aged 34, we have seen his game change, but his quality remains the same. He has never relied on pace and has always had great technique and vision, but I would argue his influence has become greater as he has moved into a deeper position – he is now often referred to as a “quarterback”. His role in the team under Alex Neil has usually been alongside Ben Pearson in a 4-2-3-1, with a reliance on Gallagher dropping into the build-up phase and dictating play, either through his tremendous switches of play or via his accurate forward passing through the middle third – think of his role in Daniel Johnson’s goal at Ewood Park a few weeks ago.
Partnering Ben Pearson, North End have one of the most well-balanced midfield bases in the Championship, Pearson with the defensive ability, and Gallagher more comfortable threading play through the thirds. That’s taking nothing away from Ben Pearson, who is the best 6 in the league in my opinion, but they complement each other excellently.
This season, Gallagher has made 1.9 key passes per game, which ranks 7th in the league for central midfielders – the same number as the coveted Chelsea loanee Mason Mount. In terms of long passes, Gally makes 3.8 successful long balls per game, which highlights his role at switching play from a deep position – this is comparatively more than Pearson who makes more short passes, but makes 3 long passes per game. On top of this, he also makes 1.5 successful crosses per game, 8thin the league for central midfielders, which highlights what we already know – his crossing technique is superb. It is common for set piece takers to hit the first man, as they look to land the ball in the sweet spot between the first man and the front post, however Gally’s set pieces are something to behold. I haven’t counted but I’d guess that his set pieces have led to 20+ goals in his time at North End.
Fittingly, his 100th career goal in the comeback win at Boro was a trademark Gallagher set piece, doing what he likes to do in going across the keeper, whipping it past the wall – he makes it look so simple. We look to have an heir to the set piece throne once Gally retires, with Josh Harrop looking to be a very effective striker of a dead ball, and I’m sure he’ll learn a lot from Gally. At the start of this season, I went down to Springfields to watch training, and at the end of the session Gally spent 10 minutes practising free kicks into an empty net, and he hit the top bins in most of his attempts, trying to perfect his technique – that is testament to him as a professional.
Gallagher has scored a fair few direct free kicks in his time at North End, but the set piece goal that really highlights his technical ability was his effort in the second phase of a corner away at Charlton in the 2015/16 season. Anyone reading this will probably remember it, hitting a cleared ball first time, on the half volley, with that amount of power and accuracy is incredibly difficult, and it just shows why Sven rated him so highly. There is little doubt in my mind that Gallagher possesses Premier League quality, but maybe you need that extra bit of physicality to flourish at the top level.
Despite moving into a deeper role in the last few seasons, Gally has still contributed to his fair share of goals and assists. Since we got promoted, he has scored 14 and assisted 27, far more than any other PNE player in that time. This season he has chipped in with 6 goals and 7 assists, the most in the side – Lukas Nmecha has 6 and DJ has 5. 13 goal contributions for a 34 year old central midfielder is some going! Since the arrival of Brad Potts, we have seen Alex Neil use Gally in a “false left” position if you will, taking up the left wing role on the team sheet but ultimately having a free license to drift inside and become the spare man in central midfield. Potts and Gallagher have rotated on occasion, with Potts having the running power to do Gally’s dirty work, leaving him with more time and energy to get on the ball, unmarked, and make things happen. Ben Pearson’s improvement has also had a positive effect on Gally, and with more and more teams using a midfielder to man-mark Pearo, Gally has had more time and space in midfield, as Pearson cleverly drags the man marker into a wider area – he is such an intelligent footballer.
Earlier in our unbeaten run, we had such joy with this midfield dynamic, with Gallagher, Pearson, Potts and Browne overloading central areas, along with the 2 gifted centre backs, our spine was a force to be reckoned with. Hopefully we see that dynamic again soon with Potts and Browne being in contention for the home game against Sheffield United.
He will be 35 at the start of next season, and physically he is slowly showing signs of slowing down, but he still has plenty to offer. He recently signed a contract extension committing to the club for next season, and no doubt he will continue to control games and offer a sense of calm, as well as being a threat from set-pieces. He often speaks about setting an example to the younger players, and with the likes of Ben Pearson, Ryan Ledson, Alan Browne and Josh Harrop under his wing, keeping him around for as long as possible will be of huge benefit. Maybe he will be used more sparingly in away games, he was overloaded at the Madejski on Saturday, but it is so hard to leave a player of his quality on the bench.
Overall, Gallagher has worn the Lilywhite shirt 258 times, scoring 38 and assisting 66, a fantastic record. He is a rare player, someone with so much quality that he has played pretty much everywhere apart from defence – striker, winger, attacking midfielder, central midfield, goalkeeper… some people used to label him a “luxury player” in a negative way, but a player with as much quality and such a presence as Gallagher, too right he is a luxury, a luxury who has developed into a real leader in this North End side and has played a major role in our transformation over the last 5 years.
Paul Gallagher, a modern day legend and seemingly he gets better with age, like a fine wine.