Timing Is The Key For Preston North End

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One of my favourite footballing quotes comes from the great Arsene Wenger – “A manager is a guide. He takes a group of people and says, ‘With you, I can make us a success; I can show you the way.’”

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It’s a view that appears to be slowly eroding from the modern game. The manager, it appears, is no longer simply the guide. It seems as though some managers are now somebody who takes full responsibility for any of the goings-on at the club, whether or not it is actually their fault.

The job has changed over the years, of that there is no doubt. At some clubs, the word ‘manager’ defines the member of staff that controls the majority of the club, from transfers and on-pitch performances to boardroom scuffles. But the primary responsibility of any manager remains the same – to coach the players and build a long-term process and philosophy, and to achieve positive results on a Saturday afternoon or a midweek evening.

Results, of course, come first and foremost, but it increasingly seems like managers are less likely to be judged on the first point. Sheffield Wednesday have had as many managers as home wins in the calendar year. The axe usually falls at Watford after a few bad results. German club Schalke have had four managers already this season, and unsurprisingly sit bottom of the Bundesliga.

North End see it differently. Ever since Simon Grayson took charge back in March 2013, the club has taken a long-term approach when it comes to managers.

I can remember the early months of 2015, particularly after a 2-1 away defeat at Crawley, where a number of fans were questioning the manager’s position. North End would then secure a richly-deserved victory at Bramall Lane against Sheffield United, and go on an 18-match unbeaten run. And despite the horror afternoon in Colchester, Grayson got the side promoted at Wembley.

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Alex Neil had similar questions asked of him at the beginning of the 2018/19 season. One win in 11 didn’t make for good reading, although several performances warranted more points than we actually picked up.

That one night at Villa Park shifted the momentum completely, as Neil and PNE finally got just reward for the hard work of the previous two months. Even after 40 minutes, when Tammy Abraham put Villa 2-0 ahead, it still felt as if we had been the better team.

Step up Daniel Johnson, who converted a penalty shortly after the break, and with 15 minutes to play, North End led 3-2. That Yannick Bolasie equalised late on was a disappointment, but Chris Maxwell’s stoppage-time penalty save from Glenn Whelan was as important as any that season to ensure a point apiece.

PNE would then go on to record four wins in their next seven, before embarking on a 12-match unbeaten run between January and March which briefly saw us dreaming over the play-offs. The side went from strength to strength over the period. They would ultimately fall away from top six contention come May, but there were plenty of positive signs for the season ahead.

Since being appointed in July 2017, Alex Neil has taken the club up a level from where it was under Grayson. In his three full seasons, the club has finished 7th, 14th and 9th. PNE consistently go toe-to-toe with some of the best the division has to offer, despite the eye-watering amounts that such clubs spend on players. But for inconsistency in the games after the restart last season, we could have easily been in the mix for promotion; we even topped the table in November.

The home form for large parts of this season has been a real concern. But we are beginning to see the defensive issues that plagued the early months now rectified, even without the services of Patrick Bauer after his Achilles injury. Three clean sheets have been recorded in three games, and whilst the goals still aren’t particularly flowing at Deepdale, the goals that are scored are currently deciding the results.

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George Graham is testament to the fact that there is nothing wrong with a 1-0 win.

It is also worth noting the away performances. Wins at Bournemouth, Brentford, Reading and Derby have been coupled with a point at Norwich. Four of those sides will no doubt be hoping to challenge for promotion come May, yet North End outperformed each one of them.

It’s striking to take a general overview of the current PNE squad and judge it on how much each individual player has improved, compared to 2017 when Neil took charge. It is, of course, a collective effort. Neil, his coaching staff and the players themselves all have a part to play.

He helped to convert Alan Browne from a solid Championship midfielder into an all-action number 10 who led North End’s high press and contributed 12 goals and 5 assists in 2018/19, as well as becoming a full international for the Republic of Ireland.

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Browne has now dropped back into a central midfield role, and can also fill in at right-back, but the last-minute winner against Derby on Boxing Day proves that the eye for goal still remains. It would be a great shame were he to depart Deepdale in the summer for nothing.

Then there are the two Bens – Davies and Pearson. It seemed far from a certainty that Davies had a long-term future at North End under Grayson. Barring three games at left-back in 2014, following a successful loan spell at League Two side York, we didn’t see him in a PNE shirt until Grayson left in the summer of 2017.

He was loaned out to Uwe Rosler’s Fleetwood Town in 2017, though, and came back to Deepdale as a genuine first-team candidate having moved inside from left-back to centre back. Since making his debut in a thrilling 4-0 win against Cardiff City in September 2017, where he was arguably man of the match, the 25-year-old has gone from strength to strength.

Pearson, meanwhile, starred in Grayson’s final season but seems to have added even more strings to his bow in recent seasons. His passing has reached a new level and Neil has been able to coach out of him the on-pitch disciplinary problems that plagued his early North End career.

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In Neil’s first two campaigns, the number four racked up an astonishing 30 yellow cards and four reds. In the last one-and-a-half, he has had just 10 yellows.

We all knew what player we wanted to see when Ryan Ledson was brought to the club – a deep-lying, tough-tackling midfielder who would be one of the focal points for starting attacks. We didn’t quite get that player at the beginning, as Ledson struggled for a regular run of games and was slightly rough around the edges, but he has become a footballer that can play an important role in this North End side for years to come.

Darnell Fisher, Neil’s first signing as North End manager, has established himself as arguably the club’s best full-back. Josh Earl was given his first-team debut in Neil’s first season, and is now beginning to nail down a starting spot after a difficult time with injuries.

Sean Maguire, signed by Grayson shortly before he left in the summer of 2017, started his North End career on fire and has improved as an all-round frontman. Daniel Johnson is a more consistent goal scorer now than ever before. Declan Rudd has credited the work of PNE’s goalkeeping coaches in becoming arguably the side’s most indispensable player.

The manager himself has admitted that this season’s results have been inconsistent. There’s been injuries to key players throughout the campaign, with Bauer’s the most notable. There was no home win until November.

Yet PNE sit just five points off the play-offs going into the New Year, off the back of three victories on the bounce. As the title says, the timing of this run, and indeed whether it can continue, is the key.

There is no doubt that the upcoming January is an important month.

The talent in the current squad is there to mount a further push up the table, but what happens in regards to the ‘big four’ could shape the remainder of the season. If any of them are to leave before their contracts expire, contingency plans need to be made, if they haven’t been made already.

In addition, another centre back injury and it is down to the bare bones in that area. Depth in the goalkeeper position could be improved. As January goes on, the picture will hopefully begin to look clearer and as time passes and the end of the month approaches, we’ll start to have more of an idea where we stand as a squad, a club and if we’re heading into the final half of the season stronger than when we entered January.

Here’s to a good transfer window for the club, and a much more positive 2021 than the year we’ve just had. Happy New Year to all.

Make sure you give the final episode of 2020 a listen below. Also, if you aren’t already, we’re on Twitter here – @fromthefinney.