Preston North End confirmed the appointment of Alex Neil as manager on 4th July 2017. The Scot signed on a rolling 12-month contract to mixed reactions from the North End faithful. Many were happy to give him a chance, some were a tad underwhelmed, some were asking ‘who?’ and a whole host of Norwich fans were scoffing ‘good luck with that one’.
Fast forward nearly two years later and off the back of a dramatic late 1-0 victory over Birmingham City at Deepdale and Alex has certainly made his mark at the club.
Unbeaten in twelve games since New Year’s Day and six consecutive away wins has put North End firmly in the play-off mix in such a competitive league. An incredible statistic to note is, since the start of October, only the current top three (Norwich, Leeds and Sheffield United) have won more Championship points than Preston.
This hot spot of form has garnered the attention it has undoubtedly deserved for both our in-form players and the gaffer. Since Darren Moore was sacked from West Brom, Neil’s name was instantly thrown in the hat of potential replacements. The speculation is certainly enough to be of genuine concern for Preston fans. He has played it down in interviews reiterating his focus on the job at hand, but the longer the position is vacant the longer the rumours will continue to rumble on.
What Second Season Syndrome?
In his first season at Preston Neil guided Preston to a lofty 7th placed finish. Whilst fans were disappointed to narrowly miss out on a spot in the top 6, on reflection it has to be considered a great season and some achievement considering the financial position of the club versus other clubs in the league (spending just £5.4m on transfers and the third lowest average player salary) and also the seemingly constant battle with injuries throughout the season.
After exceeding expectations in his first season, the start of the 18/19 campaign didn’t go as many hoped. There wasn’t significant activity in the summer transfer window and unlike the strong defence of 17/18 we were shipping goals. So far this season, we have conceded four more goals than we did in the entirety of last season. However, since our last defeat away at Rotherham on New Year’s Day, we have conceded the second fewest goals in the league with 9 and Sheffield United are the only team to have conceded less with 6.
Our poor run of form left us bottom of the table after eleven games with just 1 win on the opening day against Queens Park Rangers. The injury list, much like last season, was extensive at different points during the season which left Alex Neil without nine first-team players for a long period. The lack of squad depth exposed our weaknesses and left us with many headaches. The heat was well and truly turned up, some fans even calling for Neil to go.
Cue January and the start of a turnaround. First up was a New Year’s Day defeat to Rotherham which left many fans worried followed by desperate calls for Neil to be backed in the transfer window. These calls were answered – Josh Ginnelly’s signing had already been announced on the 1st and this was then followed by Jayden Stockley and Brad Potts joining from Exeter and Barnsley respectively, Connor Ripley joined from Middlesbrough, complete with an interesting buy-back clause in his contract and finally, Joe Rafferty signed from Rochdale. It was widely regarded by fans as a positive transfer window with many happy Preston’s business was completed, for the most part, early on.
The next twelve games speak volumes for the turnaround that Alex Neil has been instrumental in. Made up of eight wins and four draws and with key players including Republic of Ireland international duo Sean Maguire and Callum Robinson returning from injury and the January signings bedding into the squad well, in particular, Potts who had a scoring start to life at Deepdale, it seems that things have come together at the right end of the season for Preston.
A few of the highlights that have really shone through from Neil’s point of view must be:
- The continually developing defensive partnership of Ben Davies and Jordan Storey
- Gallagher’s consistently impressive form and leadership
- The attacking play that has us 7th in the Championship for goals scored with 58
The last eight games are now looking very interesting for Preston fans which include ties with Sheffield United (H), Leeds United (H) and West Brom (A) in April. It’s looking like a great opportunity with the momentum behind the lads, to push on and stake a claim for the play-offs. The injuries are still there with Andrew Hughes and possibly Alan Browne joining Josh Harrop and Billy Bodin on the treatment table for the rest of the season and Tom Barkhuizen, Paul Gallagher and Brad Potts being touch and go for the next game, Neil will undoubtedly be thankful for the international break to regroup and give his players a well-deserved break.
With the fast-paced environment of the Championship, it’s easy to forget that Neil is the youngest manager in the Championship with less experience than a lot of his counterparts. He doesn’t lack for focus and drive:
“I want to focus on my team, train them, deal with tactics, watch the opposition, discipline the players if needs-be.”
Alex Neil talking to the local press about the speculation with the vacant managerial post at West Bromwich Albion.
“We only go under the radar because nobody cares about Preston apart from those involved with Preston, but we don’t care. We care about the club and the fans know how it is and that’s all that matters to us.”
Talking to the club and local press after the 1-0 victory against Birmingham.
“The responsibility to the fans is to try and make sure they aren’t going into their work and getting pelters for the rest of the week… I want to make sure our fans have the bragging rights.”
Alex Neil talking ahead of Blackburn.
It’s easy to see why Neil would be on West Brom’s potential manager list as Preston’s form means we are no longer flying under the radar. The club will have to prepare themselves for some serious interest in both our manager and players in the summer but one thing is for certain, it’s guaranteed to make the remainder of the season a fascinating time at Preston.
From a fan’s perspective, it’s hard not to love the guy at the moment. He endears himself to the Deepdale faithful with the things he says and the things he does (away at Boro is one that springs to mind) and long may that continue!
How do you think Alex Neil has done so far while in charge at North End? Where does he rank in terms of the best you’ve seen at Deepdale in your time supporting Preston? Get in touch on twitter and facebook and let us know your thoughts.