This trip down memory lane is going back over 15 years, to my first ever live football match. Not that I remember a lot, I was an 8-year-old kid who was not into football very much at all. My name was automatically entered as a male pupil (how awfully archaic!), into a prize draw, the winner of which would receive 2 tickets to Preston North End vs. Norwich City.

As it happens, I won. My dad, a Liverpool fan up to now, took me to the game and the rest, as they say, is history. There wasn’t a lot to say about the game in general, much less that I actually remember aside from it being a rather drab goalless affair and Chris Lucketti having a certain young 6’7 forward tucked neatly in his back pocket for 90 minutes. A 6’7 forward who would go on to score 22 goals for England, almost 100 in the Premier League while appearing in multiple finals, including one in the Champions League.

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Other than the staggering height of Peter Crouch, to a shorter than average 8-year-old, I remember little else other than the blackcurrant liquorice sweets sold in the old museum shop.

I thought I’d look back on this game for a reason other than limited nostalgia, however. This was the season before that playoff final in Cardiff. The one that makes us curse Bobby Zamora’s name to this day. This was and has remained the strongest North End team I remember seeing. Until now, that is.

With our current squad potentially on the verge of upsetting all odds and sneaking into the Championship playoffs for the first time in a decade and a half, I thought I would compare what I believe to be our strongest eleven now, with the XI that started not the Norwich game, but the playoff final just over a year later.

Millennium Stadium, Cardiff – 30th May, 2005

So, before the controversy of me naming what I think is our strongest XI, let’s look at the team that fell agonisingly short of the top division all those years ago.

Some players synonymous with that era were either not starting, had just left or were just about to sign, Graham Alexander, Ricardo Fuller and Callum Davidson respectively, for example, but we will go with the XI that started that fateful afternoon anyway!

Goalkeeper

Carlo Nash – Shocking barnet but one of the best keepers I’ve seen in my time supporting North End, certainly until a certain future World Cup penalty hero came along.

Right Back

Youl Mawene – Usually a centre half, Mawene started the playoff final at right full back with Graham Alexander only making the bench. In contrast, a legendary barnet.

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Centre Back

Claude Davis – A gangly centre half and one of the cheesiest grins I’ve seen at North End and will always be fondly remembered for THAT ridiculous dance in celebration of scoring against Luton.

Centre Back

Chris Lucketti – Davis’ partner for the afternoon. A stalwart at the back who now plies his trade as Graham Alexander’s go-to assistant manager.

Left Back

Matt Hill – Always one of the shortest men on any pitch but an incredible flea-like leap saw him hardly ever beaten in the air. Left North End as part of a swap deal for striker Stephen Elliott, I think we know who got the raw deal there!

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Right Midfield

Chris Sedgwick – Not your classic winger and never blessed with tremendous pace but Sedgwick was a long term figure in the North End side. Superb dribbling and crossing ability made him reminiscent of Steve McManaman.

Central Midfield

Paul McKenna – Club legend. He was around long before I started to take notice and doesn’t seem all that long ago that he left. Cracking right foot. That goal at St. Andrew’s still gives me shivers.

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Central Midfield

Brian O’Neil – Paul McKenna’s midfield partner. I must confess I remember very little about O’Neil, a tall defensive midfielder wasn’t the type of player an 8 year old notices a great deal, but I have it on good authority from my dad that the Scottish international was a top player in his day.

Left Midfield

Eddie Lewis – From what I remember his exit from Deepdale to Leeds happened a matter of weeks after the playoff heartbreak and caused much controversy among the North End faithful. Not least when he curled in a trademark free kick against us a year later.

Striker

Richard Cresswell – Now we’re talking. My very first club idol. A Yorkshireman as English as a fry-up and a nose for goals like a truffle sow. He was the last remnant of that devastating front three. Him, Ricardo Fuller and David Healy. Yikes that’s a front line that would give any defence night terrors.

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Striker

David Nugent – A fresh face in the side that season and already proving to be the revelation that turned him into the fan favourite he is today. Also, the only member of this side still playing professionally.

Some players synonymous with that era were either not starting, had just left or were just about to sign, Graham Alexander, Ricardo Fuller and Callum Davidson respectively, for example, but we will go with the XI that started that fateful afternoon anyway!

On the Cusp?

Now to the centerpiece. My opinion of our current strongest XI and how they stack up against the XI from May 2005. Hopefully I won’t make too many of you angry!

Goalkeeper

Declan Rudd – Probably not quite up there with Nash in terms of ability, Nash’s long career speaking for itself, but still a more than capable goalkeeper who is excellent on his day (let’s ignore the early season hiccups eh?).

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Right Back

Darnell Fisher – A good option at full back, but certainly lacking the defensive capabilities of Youl Mawene and, it has to be said, would also struggle to hold a candle to Grezza, the regular right-back of that era.

Centre Back

Jordan Storey – As I’ve said, I have fond memories and a soft spot a mile wide for Claude Davis, but Storey’s already making memories and I already love him in the North End side. Plus young Jordan Storey towers over Big Claude in both ability and potential.

Centre Back

Ben Davies – Tricky one, Lucketti is a club legend so it’s hard to say without wanting to sound disrespectful, but give me Ben Davies in this comparison. I firmly believe Ben Davies is either going to be a Preston legend or will move on to play at the highest level before he establishes that status at the club.

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Left Back

Andrew Hughes – Four months ago I’m giving this to Matt Hill without a second thought, but Andrew Hughes has come on leaps and bounds recently, leaving this probably the tightest call of this whole piece for me. In fact, I refuse to call it. 50/50.

Central Midfield

Ben Pearson – I’ve heard O’Neil was a good defensive midfielder, but let’s be honest. Ben Pearson. Every time. Next.

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Central Midfield

Paul Gallagher – Maybe the most iconic player in this current side, so the closest to a club legend you can get (I believe legendary status is reserved for former, retired players other than truly exceptional circumstances). Considering what he brings to the team, and how vulnerable we are without him, I would just about tip him over McKenna here. Please don’t hurt me.

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The “front 4” is where it gets a little tricky, we operate with a lone striker and attacking midfielder as opposed to a strike partnership, so one of these comparisons (Cresswell vs. Browne) will take the differing positions into consideration!

Right Attacking Midfield

Brad Potts – Let’s, for the sake of comparison call him a winger and compare him to Sedgwick. Sedgwick offered much in the way of footwork and passing, but Potts’ pace, dynamism and slightly higher goal threat tip the balance on this one for me.

Attacking Centre Midfield

Alan Browne – This is hard in much the same way Chris Lucketti vs. Ben Davies was for me. Richard Cresswell is responsible for some great childhood memories but Alan Browne offers a wider range of attributes both on the ground and in the air. His flair for the spectacular makes him impossible to ignore.

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Left Attacking Midfield

Callum Robinson – Like it or not, he’s more than likely off to the Premier League sooner rather than later. He scores goals, he makes goals, he’s exciting to watch and he celebrates goals in a superb away-fan rustling fashion. Plus, I’m not a fan of Eddie Lewis after those events. Callum Robinson, get in my XI.

Striker

Sean Maguire. So, it’s come to this. Sean Maguire vs. David Nugent. I’ve thought long and hard about this and, quite frankly, no comment. Not only is it impossible to say which is the “better” striker at their peaks, they also strike me as so incredibly similar (2005-2008 Nugent, not nowadays-Nuge), that it’s impossible to choose. I hope that’s not a cop-out!

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What Do YOU Think?

So, is our current best XI our best side since the last time we reached the Championship playoff final? Definitely. Is our side better than the side that played in that final? I honestly think, on balance, our current side just about has it in that respect. So is it time to get excited? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, there’s still a lot of work to do and there are always injuries to contend with, but you’d be foolish to ignore the potential in this brilliant squad.

Whichever way we look at it, I’d say this is definitely our best chance in a good long while.

Agree with me? Disagree? Reckon not picking between Maguire and Nugent was a bit of a cop-out? Let us know your thoughts in the comments or on social media via Twitter and Facebook.