It’s been a busy few days since the defeat away at Boro last Tuesday night. I’ve got 5 different talking points below that some of you might think are on the negative side. Please, bear with me as I think these are all important talking points and things that need to be brought up.
Is Alex Neil at Fault?
Sunday afternoon saw the rumours confirmed, as Alex Neil who has been at the helm of the club since 2017, was relieved of his duty as manager of Preston North End Football Club.
It’s certainly a sad way for things to end for a manager who seemed to be one of the best candidates to finally take us into the Premier League, something that was just a pipedream less than a decade ago. But is Alex Neil really the man to blame for how things panned out at the club?
Personally, even though it feels like things have become stale on the pitch and even in and around the club, I can’t help but feel like Alex has been dealt a tough hand by the board throughout his Preston career. From rumours of false promises after he signed his new three-year-deal, the club’s handling of contract renewals for his key players and even a supposed lack of control over incomings no wonder he seemed absolutely drained in his recent interviews.
When Alex signed his new 3-year deal in 2019, mainly to fend off interest from promotion chasing West Brom, it was widely rumoured online that he’d have been promised a few things in the way of strengthening the squad. Whether or not this is true, is up for debate however, did we strengthen in the following summer windows? No.
We were reported to have missed out on several of Neil’s transfer targets such as Keiffer Moore, Jamal Lowe and Jake Bidwell, the former at Cardiff and the latter two both at Swansea City, clubs fighting at the top end of the Championship table. In my opinion, this has clearly been Neil’s main focus of frustration at Preston.
He has often vented this during his press conferences saying how much he dislikes the transfer window and all the speculation that comes with it.
Another situation Neil has had to contend with, again something completely out of his control, is the club’s handling of contract renewals, resulting in his key assets being sold. The main names during this time are Jordan Hugill who left with 18 months to go on his contract, Callum Robinson and Greg Cunningham, both into the final 12 months, as well as the recent departures of Ben Pearson, Ben Davies and Darnell Fisher who were all into the final 6 months of their contracts.
All of the above, except Jordan Hugill left for fees well below their market value. This has been a massive task for Alex Neil to deal with. He even said as recently as his post-Luton interview, how the turnover of players and the loss of the spine of his team has been very difficult.
I do sympathise with him on this. At any level of football, losing your key players can have a disastrous effect on a season. If you need an example; Liverpool this season with the loss of Virgil, Henderson at points and Fabinho at points and of course, Manchester City last season.
In terms of his lack of input with signings, the main one that springs to mind is when the club brought back David Nugent in the summer of 2019. Neil had previously stated that summer he wanted “players of real quality” to make Preston a “Championship force”.
Despite chasing some fairly high profile targets that summer, none were landed and it is rumoured that a 2-year deal was given to former fan-favourite David Nugent by the club’s owner, Trevor Hemmings. Nugent went on to score 1 goal in his first season before not featuring in the first part of this season and then joining Tranmere Rovers on loan for the rest of this season.
Honestly, these issues came from the club, in my opinion, being stale and NOT Alex Neil.
This isn’t me saying I wanted him to remain as the manager, I’m going to stay neutral, however, the squad failed to be improved year on year because again in my opinion, of the club and what I can only describe as a lack of forward planning or ambition.
The man has done seriously well to stay with us despite the things I’ve mentioned above and I’ve no doubt that wherever he goes next, he’ll be a success and I would just like to put on record my thanks and wish him all the best.
Likewise, I’d like to wish Frankie McAvoy all the best in his role as interim head coach between now and the season.
We’re Not Safe Yet…
As we entered the January transfer window, a window that saw a remarkable 16 ins/outs, we were in 11th place and off the back of 3 wins in a row without conceding a goal. Everyone knew that this window would be massive for the club and would dictate whether we could push on for the play-offs, retain key players and add a bit of quality or whether we would lose players and end up with a rebuilding job on our hands.
I’m sure you’re all aware, it ended up being the latter.
Ben Pearson, Ben Davies and Darnell Fisher all left the club and it’s fair to say our form since then has dipped massively with only 9 goals and 12 points from 16 games. That is relegation form, but will our midtable first half of the season be enough to keep us afloat? By no means is it a certainty just yet.
When Alex was asked by George Hodgson of Lancs Live before his departure was confirmed if he was wary of the teams behind us, he responded by saying “I’ve been looking over my shoulder for the last 6 games – since the window shut really”.
Hull City were in a similar situation last season. They were just 3 points outside the play-offs on the 11th of January and looked genuine contenders to make the top 6. However, that January the deadline day sales of their 2 best players, Jarrod Bowen and Kamil Grosiki, sparked an alarming run of form where they gathered just 6 points from a possible 57 and were relegated after finishing the season in 24th place.
Although Preston’s form isn’t as bad as Hull’s was, we are still on a very bad run and only sit 9 points above the relegation zone, ahead of a Rotherham side with 3 games in hand.
By no means are we in a relegation battle just yet, but there are no guarantees we won’t be pulled into one and it’s safe to say that Frankie McAvoy, Paul Gallagher, Steve Thompson and Mike Pollitt absolutely need to pick up some points to ensure we’re still playing in the Championship next season.
A Lack of Goals Has Cost Us Again
Our last three games have all ended in defeat and we’ve emerged without scoring a single goal which has extended the poor scoring run we’re on to only 9 goals from 16 games since the start of the January window.
Since January, this team seems to have lost its cutting edge, something that defined us as a counter-attacking, high pressing team when Alex Neil arrived. We’ve shown signs that we’re still capable of it no doubt, we scored some brilliant, vintage Alex Neil goals against Huddersfield only last month and have had some high scoring games against some big teams this year such as the away games against Brentford, Reading and Bournemouth. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re capable of it.
However, these performances seem to be less and less frequent, especially over the last 12 months.
Saturday’s defeat at the hands of Luton Town marked our 6th 1-0 home defeat of the season and overall was our 16th blank this season. Failing to score in 16 games in a season is simply isn’t good enough.
It sounds an obvious thing to say but we cannot start winning games and climb the table if we do not start scoring goals, it really is that simple.
Our top scorer Scott Sinclair has only scored twice since January and if we are to start scoring more we need players like him, Tom Barkhuizen, Ched Evans and any other attackers who feature between now and the end of the season to step up and help to pull us out of this mess that we find ourselves in.
Who Gets Player Of The Season?
Despite eventually being credited with the own goal in Saturday’s game following a cruel deflection, he was once again outstanding. He made some crucial saves in the game against Luton and he did a fantastic job to keep the scoreline respectable against Middlesborough.
Honestly, the more I watch him play the more I realise how difficult it is going to be to try and get him back next season. He’s made an outstanding 45 saves from 60 shots against since his loan move from Leicester (75% save accuracy) and he’s really having a Jordan Pickford type of impact for us.
The big Danish keeper has said he wants to go out on loan again next season if Leicester permits the move, but following his sensational performances, there will likely be a queue of clubs wanting to take the keeper out on loan. There’s no guarantee he’ll want to stay in a club that’s performed so poorly while he’s been here.
I’m sure many will feel the same here but for me, he would be my player of the season. He may have only been here 6 months but he’s been the one player this season to more often than be putting in a 7 or 8 out of 10 performance every week.
He’s been a huge asset to us and i’m certain wherever he is next season, he’ll be a colossus asset to them and he is set for a top career.
Another Contract Situation Looming?
We all know how the contract ‘saga’ we had earlier in the season and even going back to last summer, has yielded fair criticism of the club for the way things were handled. The main criticism was leaving negotiations to the late stages and therefore not being able to bring in the type of transfer fee that these players warranted as sales were left very late.
However, much to my disappointment, the club seems not to have learned its lesson. Several key players such as Jordan Storey, Scott Sinclair, Brad Potts and Patrick Bauer are all going into the last year of their contracts this summer. This again puts the club in a very difficult position if new deals cannot be agreed as the players in question will only have to wait 6 months before they can talk to other clubs about pre-contracts elsewhere.
I had really hoped that the club would’ve learnt from the past and perhaps would have been able to agree on some new deals with those players who have around 18 months or so left on their contracts to avoid another situation like we had this January just gone.
I do hope that this is just me overreacting and that contract negotiations can be resolved swiftly in the post-season and allow us to have some kind of stability at the club as we embark on what will no doubt be a big summer for the club as they look to continue with this rebuild that started in January and will continue with the appointment of a new, permanent head coach in the coming weeks or months.
Thanks a lot for reading and I hope everyone is safe and well as we all look forward to restrictions being eased in the near future. If you like, you can follow me on Twitter here – @weeden_sam.
Finally, don’t forget to listen to the latest episode of the From the Finney podcast. Jake is joined by George and Oli as they discuss the future of the club, possible replacements for Alex Neil and much more.