A lot has been made over the last few weeks of North End’s decision to loan out Josh Earl without signing a natural left-back to replace. Earl, of course, joined Bolton on loan until January earlier in the month but has already suffered an injury that will see him ruled out for 8 to 12 weeks.
Neil has already stated that Andrew Hughes was considered his number one left-back at the end of last season. Cardiff-born Hughes signed from League One Peterborough United at the start of last season and he started his PNE career quite slowly, mainly due to playing through a shin injury for several months but, once that healed, he was pretty much a mainstay.
He was a mainstay to the point where his absence was keenly felt when he was out injured toward the end of last season. That is why the conclusion to last Saturday’s clash with Wigan was significant.
According to Neil, Hughes felt his hamstring tighten up at the end of the game, although the club is hoping it isn’t too much of a concern. He travelled with the squad down to South Wales on Saturday despite ultimately missing the weekend’s clash with Swansea, which left the boss with a dilemma.
Would he move one of Darnell Fisher or Joe Rafferty out to left-back? Or would he move Ben Davies, who has played left-back on rare occasions for PNE, across?
In the end, Neil went with Rafferty, and the English-born Irishman repaid that faith with the opening goal and what a goal it was, despite the deflection. Although North End lost 3-2 in the end, the Fisher/Rafferty duo is one you imagine Neil will stick with going forward.
Given the strong partnership that has already developed between new signing Patrick Bauer and Davies at the heart of the defence, it is unlikely that Davies would ever be asked to take up that role. But Davies is rated as one of the best centre backs in the league in terms of being a ball playing centre back, and could easily switch across if needed.
Whatever happens long-term, Neil will have two strong, and different, options to start at right-back. Given Swansea’s pace down the flanks, especially Nathan Dyer, in particular, Fisher or Rafferty may have been preferred to combat that. As it was, Darnell started at right-back but Clarke can also fill in, as he did against the physicality of Millwall on the opening weekend.
Even Alan Browne has right back experience, having played there against Bradford, but Neil prefers him in that number 10 role.
The decision not to bring in a left-back is probably one that will be debated a lot until January comes around. The only known concrete interest the club had in a left-back option was Derby’s Max Lowe, whom they had a bid rejected for.
Whilst Greg Cunningham would have been welcomed back to Deepdale with open arms, there has been no confirmation that North End were actually ever in for him and he has since signed for Lancashire rivals Blackburn Rovers
And with Hughes having deservedly cemented his place as the number one left-back, and with Cunningham presumably wanting first-team football, it would have been difficult for Neil to accommodate both had the Irishman signed from Cardiff.
Without a doubt, left-back is a situation that PNE could revisit in January, but for now, the options that Neil has at his disposal should see them through. However, January is traditionally known as a slightly more difficult time to conclude deals, especially later on when clubs are reluctant to sell players without replacements.
It was no surprise to me when I saw that Derby rejected the bid for Lowe, given the potential he has. Lowe played 90 minutes for the Rams against Scunthorpe in the EFL Cup on Wednesday, he came off the bench in the game against Swansea this past Saturday, replacing Jayden Bogle and he also played at right-back for Derby County in their 2-1 defeat at the hands of Bristol City on Tuesday night.
He is behind Scott Malone in the Derby pecking order though, and Derby may look to do similar to last season and sanction either a loan or permanent move for the 22-year-old come January. There are other clubs interested, however, with Brentford rumoured to have placed a bid on deadline day.
North End’s decision making could hinge on the fitness of Earl come January. Neil said last week that he does not want a repeat of the stop-start season Earl had last season – the first half of this campaign unavoidable in that sense – but it could be that the club decides to loan him back out once fully fit.
If that does prove to be the case then you can be sure that the discussions will start again. Do you think the club will look for a replacement left-back in the January window? Let us know on social media what you think.