The left-back position at Preston North End is cursed. Who cursed it, when and why? We don’t know, but it is cursed nonetheless.
Alright, maybe not. Let’s not go all “John Beck” and perform any on-pitch exorcisms quite yet, but the club have certainly had some terrible luck at left-back for quite some time now.
The problem stretches back over ten years, to when Callum Davidson most often occupied the position. The Scotsman, whose powerful left foot contributed to several spectacular long-range goals and consistently emphatic penalties, all of which made him a real fans’ favourite at Deepdale.
Unfortunately, he saw the latter part of his career with North End scuppered by several injuries, most notably a recurring problem with his calf. Callum Davidson was eventually released by the club in March of 2011, the season in which North End were relegated from the Championship to League One, after having needed to be replaced by loan players following injuries keeping him out of the side earlier that campaign.
First, it was Ritchie De Laet, who came in on an emergency loan from Manchester United to cover from November to December, at which point Ricardo Gardner was recruited to see out the ill-fated season.
The club’s first season in League One saw responsibilities shared by Steven Smith and winger Paul Parry before Jamie McAllister was loaned in from Bristol City to bring some much-needed experience to the side for the season’s run-in, the Lilywhites slumping to a disappointing 15th place finish.
Many things can be said about Graham Westley. Many, many things. One thing he can be applauded for is bringing some stability to the left-back position (although you could argue when completely gutting a team and bringing a new squad in, a minimum requirement would be to remember all the positions).
His recruitment of Scott Laird and David Buchanan gave some solidity to the position. The “curse” was not to be denied in the case of Scott Laird though, and the fact that he felt it better to remain in a lower tier of the EFL than remain with the club in the Championship was probably down in no small part to the effects of the horrific injury that occurred just months into his first season at the club.
Jamal Campbell-Ryce’s horror challenge left Laird with a severely broken leg just as he was beginning to show himself to be a key component of the side and, although he was to regain his place in the side and help us to promotion, the injury did put a dampener on his pace and his tendency to maraud forward like we saw in his first couple of months.
Despite the injury, still a fairly frequent goalscorer from full-back (who could forget his goal against Manchester United in the F.A. Cup?), Laird was North End’s number 3 right up until we regained our spot in the Championship.
It was at this point that the ageing Scotsman declined a new deal at Deepdale, opting to remain in League One by joining Scunthorpe United, citing a desire for more certain first team football than he would get in the Championship.
A fans’ favourite needed replacing, and he was replaced by arguably one of the best free transfers we’ve seen in recent times at Deepdale. Greg Cunningham took the number 3 shirt for our first season back in the second tier and immediately looked a steal, not least with his diving header winner away at former club Bristol City.
Again though, at the height of his promise, injury struck. Cunningham also broke his leg towards the end of the 2016/17 season and, while it was not as serious as Laird’s before him, it still seemed that North End would have no luck in that position. Still, Cunningham came back strong and earned a move to Cardiff, newly promoted to the Premier League in the summer of 2018.
Cunningham has struggled his entire career with injuries, breaking that same leg previously when playing for Leicester in 2011 and recently rupturing his ACL while on loan at Blackburn Rovers, from which all of us at From The Finney wish him a speedy recovery.
This brings us to the present day, with Andrew Hughes now the go-to name on the team sheet to fill the left full-back position. Hughes was signed from Peterborough to try to fill the frankly enormous shoes of Greg Cunningham and in honesty has acquitted himself admirably. His passing range is superb and he seems next to unbeatable in the air, the fact he has popped up with a goal every now and then is just a bonus. Considering Greg Cunningham was essentially the definition of a tough act to follow, he’s done very well.
Yet again though, injuries have hampered our left-back, with Hughes spending a few shorter but not insignificant spells on the sidelines, particularly during the horror show that was last season’s squad-wide biblical injury plague.
Although it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hughes return on Saturday to face Reading at the Madejski it might very well be worth looking at the best course of action for the club to consider when looking at cover for his position should the left-back “curse” strike again any time soon.
What about Rafferty?
Is Joe Rafferty a long term solution for left-back cover in this side? He has been a solid option thus far when deputising for Hughes during the Welshman Hughes’s intermittent absences from the side in the first quarter of this season.
Particularly notable about his performances are his reliability, at least in not making any glaring errors leading to goals thus far and even occasional contributions to goals, with his strike at the Liberty Stadium and his major role in the build-up to Tom Barkhuizen’s goal against Brentford standing out.
He does have some quite visible limitations, however. He can sometimes be caught upfield or slightly out of position, providing the opposition with an opportunity to get in behind him.
Staying with the home win over Brentford as an example, he was caught a few times by Bees winger Mbeumo getting past him including one time where the wide-man looked to have a clear run to the by-line after getting the wrong side of Rafferty, only to mis-control the ball and run it out of play; something of a let-off for North End and in particular, Rafferty.
That issue, which has threatened to rear it’s head numerous times, might be indicative of a more general problem with Rafferty’s game which I think is simply a certain level of naïvety on Joe’s part, whether that be in the case of the left-back position, with Championship football itself or a mixture of both.
In fact, with it in mind that he has had both of those factors working against him since deputising for Hughes it can only be said that the former Rochdale man has acquitted himself very well, possibly as well as can be realistically expected from a right-sided full-back who had never played Championship football before signing for North End.
As to the question of whether Rafferty should be relied upon as a long-term option as a second choice left-back, you could argue that despite the player stating that he is relishing the challenge, it might even be unfair on him to expect him to play an unfamiliar role so much.
What other options are there? Well, in the summer you would have been forgiven for assuming the responsibility of covering for a potentially injured Hughes would have fallen to the other senior left-back in the squad, Josh Earl.
Earl has been a bit-part player at Deepdale for a good couple of seasons now, having found himself playing second fiddle to first, Greg Cunningham and then Andrew Hughes last year. He himself has his faults and the 20-year-old still has plenty of development to do, but despite this, he has still turned in several impressive performances at Championship level for the Lilywhites.
All the more surprising then, when our final piece of first-team business in the summer transfer window was to loan Earl to Bolton Wanderers for the 2019/20 season. This left us with only one left-sided option for the left-back slot with any other incomings unlikely and fans were certainly scratching their heads in bemusement at the decision of the club.
For me at least, left-back is a priority in January. That isn’t to say Rafferty hasn’t been pulling his weight and I in no way mean to detract from his sterling efforts covering for Hughes so far this season. Still, I believe we should be seeking left-sided cover for Hughes should any more injuries affect his season.
If a recall for Earl’s loan isn’t doable or likely, a foray into the transfer market for a left-back should, in my opinion, be second only to seeking the goalkeeper we almost certainly should have pursued more vigorously in the summer.
My main reason for believing a left-sided full-back should be a priority is the balance of the side. Balance is a key aspect of any defence, perfectly exemplified by the stellar partnership on display between the right-footed Patrick Bauer and Ben Davies; a leftie.
With rumours beginning to swirl of a Premier League move for Ben Davies being firmly in the “sooner rather than later” category the balance of our backline already looks somewhat under threat. Should Davies move on and Hughes have any recurrence of injuries after January, we may be left with an entirely right-footed backline which would certainly leave us a little lop-sided.
How do you think we should approach the left-back situation? Do you think we’re ok as we are, with Joe Rafferty doing a decent job covering? Don’t hesitate to get in touch and let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment here or on social media. We are on twitter, facebook and instagram. Finally, if you haven’t already, why not give the From the Finney podcast a listen? Just hit the play button on one of the episodes below and voila, you’re away.