The doom and gloom of the club’s failings in the transfer window already seems a long time ago. Back to back wins and clean sheets with 7 goals shared amongst 6 players has helped glaze over the fact Alex Neil was unable to bring in the experience or quality he perhaps felt the squad was lacking. As the transfer window slammed shut last week fans were left believing the squad was in a much worse place than last season and we were lacking a more stable goalkeeper, a back-up left-back and another striker. The truth is we are still lacking that however, the players at the club have shown they can do a job when called upon.
Obviously, Alex Neil wouldn’t have been too happy with the club’s transfer activity this summer. One would think he was promised a few things in order for him to sign his new three-year contract back in April amid interest from West Bromwich Albion. We were waiting for that signing that would make other teams stand up and take note and think perhaps Preston were making a serious go for it this season.
A Scott Sinclair or Fraser Forster type signing would have ticked that box. However, we settled for Patrick Bauer – a great free transfer. David Nugent – a nostalgic signing to keep the fans happy. Andre Green – a downgrade on Callum Robinson if we’re honest but he may develop and come good. Finally, Tom Bayliss – a big outlay for us with an obvious sell on value but in a position we weren’t really crying out for.
With minimal outgoings this year, it meant the Preston North End squad was now at a size where Neil would have numerous options for all positions. Well apart from in the left-back position after letting Josh Earl leave on loan without securing a replacement which already looks like a horrific decision for both parties. Even more so after Andrew Hughes finished the game against Wigan holding his hamstring.
After a below-par performance against Millwall on the opening day of the season, Neil had the opportunity to mix things up and alter the team rather than sticking with the same players and going again. Usually dropping regulars like Alan Browne and Tom Barkhuizen would raise a few eyebrows. However, the manager wanted to try out a few different options for the visit of Lancashire rivals Wigan Athletic. Those two are almost the first names on the team sheets when fit and it was even more surprising to see Louis Moult brought in, although I feel many fans were glad to see him given the chance.
He wasn’t even in the squad for the Millwall match and didn’t feature in the bounce game against Salford City a few days later. Yet he took his chance last weekend, and everyone was glad to see him do so. Moult’s effort has never been questioned. His off the pitch activities have always been praised as well. Yet with no other striker aside from Nugent coming in this summer, fans were left thinking we are lacking quality up front.
Louis Moult was even linked with a loan move away, yet he’s thrown himself right back into contention. With the former Motherwell man down the middle linking up well with Sean Maguire on the left, perhaps our attacking options aren’t as bad as they seem. It’s worth remembering Moult has scored some very important goals for us in the past as well.
Last season he scored crucial goals away against Aston Villa and Hull City which helped us halt our horrendous start to the season. He also scored a crucial goal at home to Blackburn Rovers to make it 3-1 when it looked as if they were getting back into the tie and had the upper hand. Lastly who can forget his winner away to Nottingham Forest which sent the fans into raptures in the City Ground? Given a sustained run in the side I think Moult can score quite a few goals and will link up well with the players around him. He’ll certainly be a valuable option up front this season.
Aside from Moult, Billy Bodin and Daniel Johnson also shone when brought into the side against Wigan. It’s exciting to see Bodin back after his injury and his trickery is something that’s always going to cause opposition full-backs problems. DJ had one of his better games, we know they aren’t frequent enough but it’s clear to see he does play better when he’s pushed further forward. His cross in for Moult’s goal was perfect but a lot of fans are always quick to jump on his back if he loses the ball or doesn’t fly into a tackle like Ben Pearson.
What was evident in the line-up against Wigan was that our bench was one of the strongest we had seen for some time. To have the aforementioned Browne and Barkhuizen on there alongside Brad Potts, Andre Green and Jayden Stockley meant we had some great options to bring on no matter how the game was panning out. Wigan weren’t at their best and we were probably expecting a tougher game after their great win against Cardiff City on the opening day. Nevertheless, it was an accomplished performance from North End.
Onto the Bradford City game and the size of the squad meant Neil could change all 11 players without seriously hampering the quality on show. Okay, we should never be seeing Browne playing right-back but aside from the full-back situation it was a strong team that ultimately proved too much for The Bantams.
It’s great to see Green and Barkhuizen up and running for the season and more importantly for Josh Harrop to score straight away on his return after almost a year out with injury. The reaction from former players such as John Welsh and Callum Robinson on social media showed how popular he is and how huge that could be for his confidence now. Harrop is a very talented player and again like Moult I think if he was given a sustained run in the side, we would see his quality shine through. That run may still be a while off, but I think Harrop is fairly unique in his directness among our attacking midfielders.
A 4-0 win is always great, obviously, we weren’t up against the strongest of opponents but as we saw with the numerous Championship teams exiting the first round to lower opposition, you can’t just expect to roll these teams over. Other Championship managers changed their whole team but that meant a lot of debuts or a few young players coming in. Our team was still an experienced one and it’s clear we do have a big squad with many options.
Paul Huntington and David Nugent are two further experienced players who are yet to feature in a squad this season. Even with a few injuries this campaign it looks as though we should be able to cope for the most part in the majority of positions. But, let’s hope that we don’t have a repeat of the past couple of seasons as far as injuries are concerned.
So, whilst we are still left waiting for that X factor signing, this is probably a squad with more depth than we have had before since our return to the Championship. That competitiveness will push everyone on as a first team place is going to be hard to nail down with so many others chomping at the bit to get into that first XI.