With the January transfer window now a mere memory, and a seemingly distant one at that, we have had quite some time to see and appraise the squad as it will be for the remainder of the 2019/20 season.
The signing of Scott Sinclair in the opening days of the midseason window proved to be the only incoming business at Deepdale, despite many fans calling for other deals to be made, and finalised the roster of players at Alex Neil’s disposal.
The confusion and disappointment of the sections of fans calling for more signings was, in my opinion, understandable for a number of reasons.
Firstly, there are clear imbalances in the squad that become apparent when injuries or suspensions hit in numerous positions. At goalkeeper for example, Declan Rudd often came under scrutiny at the start of the season as inconsistent performances and a number of errors cost the Lilywhites a number of points.
His form has unquestionably, dramatically improved since the start of 2020 but even so, with Chris Maxwell’s time at the club coming to a final, sputtering end with the mutual agreement to cancel his contract that saw him move to Blackpool, our options at goalkeeper are now limited to Declan Rudd, Connor Ripley and Michael Crowe.
The latter pair’s collective time at Deepdale has been nothing short of disastrous, an observation I don’t think will cause too much controversy to make, and Matt Hudson being below the pair of them in the pecking order speaks volumes of Neil’s rating of the academy graduate.
It is no surprise then, that there were loud calls made both in the summer and throughout January for a goalkeeper to be brought in to provide some proper competition for Declan Rudd but alas, none were forthcoming.
Similarly at the left-back position, fans were holding out hopes for some quality cover or competition for Andrew Hughes.
Although Joe Rafferty has done a fine job filling in at left-back when required, his limitations when playing on the side opposite to his natural right-footedness have usually been visible even during his better performances. Alex Neil has also recently cited Rafferty’s lesser height as a reason for him not featuring, leaving us even more perplexed as to why nothing was done in January.
The decision to loan Josh Earl out in the summer was one I have previously questioned myself both in writing and on the From the Finney podcast, but I have been assured by those more in the know than myself that efforts, while eventually fruitless, were at least being made in the summer to provide Hughes with competition.
Despite this, Earl was again loaned out in January with no attempts made this time to provide extra cover, leaving Neil with an out-of-position Joe Rafferty as his only option should Andrew Hughes face fitness or disciplinary problems.
Finally, among fans, strong cases were made in the run-up to the window for a striker. Between them, the four players in North End’s squad we might class as “strikers”, Sean Maguire, Jayden Stockley, Louis Moult and David Nugent, have scored just eight goals between them at the time of writing.
Maguire with four, Stockley with two and Moult and Nugent having just the one goal each.
While more prolific, reliable scorers in the squad do exist, most notably Tom Barkhuizen, Daniel Johnson and Josh Harrop, these are all better described as advanced or attacking midfield players. Barkhuizen has been used as a striker on occasion this season but is more often utilised on the wing.
While Sinclair, a talented and experienced forward player was brought in, there is still a gaping hole in the squad for a reliable, prolific out and out striker, the likes of which we have not seen since losing and subsequently failing to replace Jordan Hugill, who has 13 goals for Queens Park Rangers this campaign and despite not scoring at the weekend, showed the Deepdale faithful just what he can offer a side.
What’s Causing the ‘Lull’ of Incomings?
In my opinion, there are two core blockades that are keeping North End from having more productive transfer windows.
The first is something of an umbrella topic, and that is finances. It is a matter of much debate among fans as to whether owner Trevor Hemmings is doing his bit financially with regards to bringing in fresh faces and there are many sides to this discussion.
It’s perfectly reasonable for one group of fans to say they would like to see more ambition and financial backing showed by Hemmings, after all there are many other clubs with owners much less wealthy than he who pack much more financial clout in terms of expenditure on playing staff and it’s justifiable to want us to compete with these clubs.
Meanwhile, it is just as valid to acknowledge that Hemmings does so much for the club financially off the pitch, just keeping us afloat and stable and that it is, therefore, hard to criticise him for not splashing millions of pounds of his own cash on signings that could easily flop.
Then there is the matter of the money brought in from the sales of Jordan Hugill to West Ham for around £9m, Callum Robinson to Sheffield United for around £7m and Greg Cunningham to Cardiff City for around £3.5m.
Assuming these figures are not too far from the actual transfer fees paid, that is almost £20m extra coming into the club that some would like to see invested in the squad.
There have been fees paid here and there, around a £1m plus add-ons for Brad Potts, £750k for Jayden Stockley and around £1.8m including add-ons for Tom Bayliss from Coventry.
But, even these plus fees for other signings, it doesn’t even come to about half of the incoming funds from those three aforementioned outgoing transfers alone. This is what has irked a number of Preston fans but this also is not the core issue I am going to focus on here.
Casting the Net
What I am going to talk about in more detail is something that has raised its’ head as something of a talking point among fans over the last couple of months, and that is North End’s refusal to look overseas for potential incoming signings. At least, that’s how it feels.
So, time for some stats. Looking back over our time back in the Championship, since promotion at the end of the 2014/15 season, we have brought in fifty fresh faces both permanently and on loan**.
Of these fifty new signings, fourty-four have been signed from within the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), five have been signed from the Republic of Ireland and just one has been signed from further afield, specifically Italy.
My mathematic ability leaves plenty to be desired, but I’m confident in my working that 1 in 50 equates to 2% (thank heavens for the nice round number). So 2% of our incoming signings since 2015 have been from outside of the United Kingdom and Ireland. For a Championship club, that number is staggeringly low.
The single signing from outside of the UK and Ireland we have made since returning to the Championship was 6’7 striker Simon Makienok, who joined on loan for the 2016/17 season from Italian side Palermo. Makienok had however been on loan at Charlton Athletic the season prior.
Bringing in players from the Republic of Ireland does of course count as players coming in from overseas, so Sean Maguire, Kevin O’Connor, Daryl Horgan, Andy Boyle and Graham Burke are technically also international signings but let’s be honest, we’re not counting them!
Prior to Makienok, the last players to come in from abroad were Thorsten Stuckmann, who came in as a free agent after leaving Alemmania Achen in Germany as well as Juhvel Tsoumou and Keammar Daley, who signed from Achen and Tivoli Gardens in Jamaica respectively.
While neither of the latter two went on to set the world alight at Deepdale, they were both pretty impactful in their own rights. Tsoumou was a hulking striker who was often a handful for defences and scored a handful of goals despite never truly settling into life in England, and Daley was nothing if not exciting.
Thorsten Stuckmann was a different story. The immense German goalkeeper went on to impress and was a mainstay at the club, even throughout Graham Westley’s tumultuous tenure, right through until the summer of 2015. Although he had lost his place as the first-choice keeper by that time, he was fondly thought of by a lot of fans and had something of a reputation as a penalty-saving expert.
Going a little further back, you need to look no further than Ricardo Fuller for a signing who came in from abroad to make a real impact (although he himself had spent a loan spell in the UK before coming to Deepdale).
With the way football has modernised and globalised in such a way that footage of players and even the most obscure statistics are little more than an internet search engine away, it seems frankly silly that North End have not begun to make forays further afield for incoming fresh faces.
You only have to look at some of the Championship’s most talented players to see the benefits of looking abroad.
Saïd Benrahma is, to put it lightly, a ridiculous talent. The then 22-year-old Algerian winger signed for Brentford from French club Nice after loan spells in France’s second and third tiers for a reported £1.5m.
Bristol City have both Niclas Eliasson, a winger and Ádám Nagy, a centre half, who were signed from Swedish club IFK Nörrkoping for £1.8m and Italian side Bologna for £2.5m respectively.
Even Luton Town, whose chief executive Gary Sweet recently complained of not being able to compete financially in the Championship, brought in young Croatian international goalkeeper Simon Sluga for around £1.2m.
I won’t flood you with example after example, but from the aforementioned players it should be clear that there is talent outside of the UK which is affordable, accessible and available should North End choose to begin pursuing this avenue of potential investment.
The sorts of fees mentioned for the players above are certainly doable for North End, but as we have proven in recent windows with signings like Brad Potts, Ryan Ledson and Tom Bayliss, we have preferred to spend our money on players from lower divisions in the UK.
Searching for footballing talent in the UK is like playing one of those rigged arcade claw machines. The amount you end up spending to secure what you think you want is rarely worth the reward when you can look for something similar elsewhere, and you often end up with buyer’s remorse.
This fan thinks it’s about time North End started to cast their net a little wider, or else risk getting brushed aside by clubs that aren’t afraid to do so.
What do you think? Should North End look further afield in transfer windows? Do you have any suggestions of players from overseas you think could be a good and affordable fit at Deepdale? Let us know by leaving a comment, or getting in touch with us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.
**players not included are Paul Gallagher and Jermaine Beckford, who signed permanently the summer after gaining promotion but were here beforehand. Also, players who were loaned in after this time and then signed permanently (e.g. Callum Robinson and Marnick Vermijl) have only been counted once.
Finally, if you haven’t listened to the From the Finney podcast. Just do it already.
Episode #35 👇🏻
From the Finney Meets… Andrew Lonergan 👇🏻