A lot has been said over the last few months about the club and Alex Neil’s time in charge, exacerbated by the fact that we are all stuck at home and social media is our only real outlet.
A perhaps underrated aspect of lockdown football for those who regularly attend is that just turning to your mate, family member or usual faces you sit near and saying “What a load of rubbish” is usually enough to relieve some of the built-up tension from a disappointing defeat and allows you to get something off your chest.
There is always the person who says “I’m not buying a ticket to the next game” to which you reply with a smirk “See you next week” and the ranter in the pub who explains exactly why we should be playing 4-4-2. Those small comments on social media however can be read in any way that the reader wants to perceive them and a reply or disagreement can quickly turn into an argument for the whole fanbase to see and weigh in on.
It’s felt as though, for the last few weeks at least, that the pressure from these platforms has been so intense that it cannot have gone unnoticed by the club. A few people I have spoken to said that it would have been a toxic environment for the game against Luton to be played in front of but I am not so sure it would have come to this in normal circumstances and perhaps Alex has fallen foul of this strange behind closed doors season.
What I will say in light of all this however is it has been pleasing and somewhat surprising to see so many positive words from the fans about the manager after the news was announced that the club had parted ways with Alex, especially following his words to the media after the final game.
When Alex Neil joined Preston North End, I saw quite a few comments from Norwich fans that said he was a good manager but he was dreadful in the transfer market. They quoted numerous high priced transfers brought in that hadn’t worked out and that was the stick they beat him with when he was sacked.
Those comments have stuck in my mind during his tenure and therefore I have always looked forward to the transfer windows with intrigue.
I am well aware that the days of the manager being the sole voice or even having final say on transfers are gone at almost every club so I have named this article the best signings under Alex Neil and looked into some stats to back this up.
31 players were brought into the club during this time, 9 loans and 22 permanently. An estimated £20million, or there abouts, has been generated from the sales of Jordan Hugill (£9m), Callum Robinson (£6/7m) and Greg Cunningham (£3/4m).
Transfer records, both in and out have been broken with the reported £9m for Jordan Hugill breaking the incoming transfer record and Peter Ridsdale confirmed to Jake and Jimmy on the podcast that he believes the club transfer record was broken in the January window, presumably on Ben Whiteman considering he was the only permanent transfer we made.
🗣 “𝗠𝘆 𝗴𝘂𝘁 𝗳𝗲𝗲𝗹𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗶𝘀, 𝘄𝗲 𝗯𝗿𝗼𝗸𝗲 𝗶𝘁 𝘁𝗵𝗶𝘀 𝗝𝗮𝗻𝘂𝗮𝗿𝘆, 𝗺𝗮𝗿𝗴𝗶𝗻𝗮𝗹𝗹𝘆, 𝗯𝘂𝘁 𝗜 𝘁𝗵𝗶𝗻𝗸 𝘄𝗲 𝗽𝗿𝗼𝗯𝗮𝗯𝗹𝘆 𝗱𝗶𝗱.”
Peter Ridsdale on whether or not we’ve broken our 20 year old transfer record. 💷 #pnefc
🔗 https://t.co/hmTD1GfosU pic.twitter.com/k0clyQg244— From the Finney (@fromthefinney) February 4, 2021
I was torn between either ranking the top 5 signings or grading every player to have walked through the door to give an average transfer rating but decided to go with the best five in my opinion.
Let’s get into it.
Estimated cost – £750k from Exeter City in summer 2018
Appearances – 70 from 142 (49%)
A few eyebrows were raised when North End were rumoured to have spent what we would consider decent money on a centre half who had only made 13 league appearances for League Two Exeter City.
However, he formed a good partnership with Ben Davies in that first season and for such a young age he looked like an absolute bargain.
A difficult second season followed but now in his third season and back in the team, hopefully, he can kick on and establish himself as a mainstay in the team. It might surprise a few that he made an appearance in 49% of games under Alex Neil.
Estimated cost – £750k from Oxford United in summer 2018
Appearances – 75 from 142 (53%)
A deal that at the time dragged on a little bit due to a reported failed medical but Preston managed to get the deal over the line in the end.
Another signing on this list of a player in his early twenties, moving for a decent fee from the lower leagues although in the early part of his Preston career he struggled to get into the side as the manager preferred one or the other between himself and Ben Pearson and then, of course, we had Paul Gallagher, Daniel Johnson and Alan Browne who could all be utilised in the engine room.
I think this does Ryan Ledson a slight disservice as although he loves a tackle, I think he would see himself as more of a deep-lying playmaker.
His performances this season since he has come into the team have been good despite the team’s troubles and we have missed him when he has been out and I really think he has a bright future at the club.
Estimated cost – Undisclosed from Peterborough United in summer 2018
Appearances – 91 from 142 (64%)
Appearing in 64% of games under Alex Neil could be a little misleading as you could argue if he was permanently fit, that could easily be over 95%.
Hughes seems to struggle with niggling injuries throughout a season but when he plays he is usually reliable. This was another drawn-out transfer to the club as it was only the fourth bid that we put in that was accepted and there are very few details available or speculation on the transfer fee.
Hughes is great in the air and has often played on the left of a back three which will offer the new manager versatility but now has good competition in Greg Cunningham.
Estimated cost – Free from Rotherham United in summer 2017
Appearances – 119 from 179 (66%)
Darnell was Alex Neil’s first signing as Preston manager and I was not alone in being underwhelmed by a player that League One Rotherham didn’t want but he proved me and presumably many others wrong fairly quickly.
Perhaps a bit rash at times and not the greatest disciplinary record but he played with his heart on his sleeve and certainly early on in Neil’s Preston reign, he loved to get forward and join in on the attack. Quite a strange departure in the end to Middlesbrough but to get a bit of money for a player who had not been offered a new deal is smart business.
On the other hand, what isn’t smart business is not having a replacement lined up knowing you’re selling your number one right back. That is where the real question marks lie for me.
Estimated cost – Free from Charlton in summer 2019
Appearances – 56 from 92 (61%)
Patrick Bauer rounds up my list and completes the set of all five players coming into the club from League One or Two. He is also the most recent signing on the list but when he is fit, he is one of the first names on the team sheet.
Fresh from his heroics in the play-off final for Charlton, North End managed to capture his signature after he turned down a new deal there and was also rumoured to have turned down a move to Blackburn Rovers. He slotted straight into the side from day one.
Take his appearances from before this season-ending injury at Bournemouth and he would be at 82%, by far the highest of the Neil signings.
I think that whoever the new manager may be going into next season, the centre back partnership will be Bauer and one other and that alone shows how good a signing the German has been for the club.
I’m going end this piece with a handful of honourable mentions because there are three players in particular that were close to making this list but just fell short.
All three, Scott Sinclair, Brad Potts and the much-maligned Lukas Nmecha, have had big parts to play in their time here.
Brad Potts and Scott Sinclair both find themselves out of contract next summer and will (hopefully) want to try and pen new deals soon while Lukas Nmecha is doing very well for himself with Anderlecht in the Belgian Pro League and also Germany U21s.
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