What Exactly is the Club’s Long Term Plan?

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Was Tuesday night against Rovers an awful night? Absolutely. Was Saturday’s defeat against former Premier League side Watford disappointing? Yes, but not really a surprise all things considered.

However, I’m not here to write directly about either of those games. George Hodgson over at LancsLive has articulated his feelings very well after the Rovers game, much better than I could, and you can read his piece here.

Yes, our home form has been poor, no doubt about that. Yes, our home form has been poor for the majority of this year. Is the manager perfect? No. Is any manager perfect in football? No. Is the manager the best man for the job right now? In my opinion, yes. I don’t think there is anyone out there who would be willing to come to the club and would do better than Alex.

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It’s easy to point the finger at the manager and say he needs to be sacked but let’s not kid ourselves here, his remit is to clearly keep us in this league. It’s all well and good the club coming out and continually banging the Premier League drum but absolutely nothing else that is done at the club backs up that claim.

However, everyone is entitled to an opinion so if that’s you then fair enough, you do you but I disagree.

Let’s take a step back for a second and take a look at what Alex has been working with during his time in PR1.

July 4th, 2017

This was the day that we appointed the manager, a man who has guided the club with about the 5th or 6th lowest budget in the Championship to our highest placed finish in the league for a decade.

Alex Neil signed as a not so free agent but thanks to Delia Smith, she waived the fee that would have been due to Norwich per Alex’s termination from the Norfolk club. Let’s take a look at his squad when he joined us.

Goalkeepers: Declan Rudd, Chris Maxwell, Matthew Hudson and Callum Roberts.

Defenders: Greg Cunningham, Tom Clarke, Calum Woods, Tommy Spurr, Ben Davies, Paul Huntington, and Josh Earl. There was also Kevin O’Connor, Marnick Vermijl, and Andy Boyle who all left on loan in January 2018.

Midfielders: Ben Pearson, Alan Browne, Josh Harrop, Daniel Johnson, Paul Gallagher, John Welsh, and Ben Pringle who only left on loan in August 2018 from what I can find.

Forwards: Sean Maguire, Tom Barkhuizen, Jordan Hugill, Callum Robinson, Daryl Horgan, and Eoin Doyle who left on loan in the August.

Of those players, a number we let go or their contracts expired. In terms of players coming in during that first summer transfer window, Sean Maguire and Kevin O’Connor were part of a joint deal that was agreed upon before Alex arrived at the club, then Stephy Mavididi came in on loan and Darnell Fisher was his only permanent signing.

In the following windows, he’s gone on to oversee the signings of the following players in his time here: Louis Moult, Billy Bodin, Michael Crowe, Connor Simpson, Andre Green (loan), Graham Burke, Connor Ripley, Josh Ginnelly, Tom Bayliss, Brandon Barker (loan), Lukas Nmecha (loan), David Nugent, Ryan Ledson, Scott Sinclair, Jayden Stockley, Jordan Storey, Brad Potts, Joe Rafferty, Andrew Hughes, Patrick Bauer and of course, our most recent recruit, Emil Riis.

I say oversee because we’re all aware of how the club works. I don’t think you can explicitly say that Alex Neil signed X or Y, in fact, Peter Ridsdale said as much on the podcast the first time he came on.

Player Development & Transfers

Alex often gets stick when it comes to recruitment, some may think rightly so, and others, myself included, think it’s somewhat unfair.

As I’ve just said, we all know the way that the club operates when it comes to transfers which is why I think it’s harsh to put the blame solely at the door of the manager for the poor recruitment. Also, it’s incredibly hard for Alex to continue to reach the levels he has done in recent times when in my opinion, the quality in the squad has slowly been whittled away.

When Alex came to the club, Jordan Hugill, Callum Robinson and Greg Cunningham were all already good players but there’s no doubt that they all improved under Alex’s tutelage. The fact they all got Premier League moves within 2 seasons of Alex being at the club would indicate they improved.

Jordan Hugill was the first to depart. The club rejected a £1.5m bid in January 2017 from Ipswich Town. Then, in the summer of 2017, the club allegedly rejected a bid from Birmingham believed to be around £2.5m with both Wolves and Sunderland also interested.

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His departure eventually came on January 31st, 2018 with a move to West Ham for a fee believed to be around the £9m mark. With the move coming late on deadline day, it was nigh on impossible for the club to try and sign a replacement.

When he left, he was sitting on 12 goal involvements in all competitions in half a season with 8 goals and 2 assists in the league and 2 goals in the League Cup. It’s taken us two and a half years to find what appears to be an adequate replacement in Emil Riis and none of our strikers since his departure have come close to replicating those numbers in a full season, let alone half a season. To say Alex Neil didn’t improve Jordan, in my opinion, would be wide of the mark.

Next up, Greg Cunningham departed at the end of the 2017/18 season, joining new Premier League side Cardiff, in a move that saw him sign a 3-year deal and North End receive a fee believed to be around the £4m mark.

No disrespect to Andrew Hughes but replacing a £4m full-back with a £200,000 League One full-back with no prior Championship experience, it’s immediately going to weaken your XI.

Then there was Callum Robinson who joined Sheffield United in the summer of 2019 for a fee believed to be around £7m. Robbo had 17 goal contributions (13G, 4A) in all competitions for us at the end of that season, playing predominantly as a left-winger. He also spent a month or two out with an injury and had he not missed that time, I’ve no doubt in my mind he’d have been closer to 20 goals for us.

Callum was replaced with Scott Sinclair in the winter window that followed and even though there wasn’t a fee paid for Scott as far as I know, this is a signing that’s probably as close to a “quality” replacement you could argue, in recent times for us.

He’s taken some time to settle but in flashes this season, he’s started to show what he’s capable of and is currently our top goal scorer with 5 goals and 1 assist so far this season.

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All three of the above players have all undoubtedly been improved by Alex Neil and were sold for the best part of £20m. If we sell Ben Davies and Ben Pearson in the summer just gone, you’re probably looking at £8-10m each in a normal, non-COVID transfer window and that would be the best part of £40m worth of talent sold. Granted, Alex Neil didn’t identify and bring those players to the club but there’s no doubt, in my mind at least, that he nurtured the talent they had and helped those players to improve.

In terms of players that I believe we’ve shown serious interest in, some of whom it’s gotten to the point where we’ve had them in the building but not gotten deals over the line for one reason or another, there is the likes of Jamal Lowe, Fraizer Campbell, Adam Armstrong, Ivan Toney, Cauley Woodrow, Keiffer Moore, Aro Muric, Nakhi Wells, Callum Johnson, Jake Bidwell, Cameron Jerome, Conor Gallagher, and Rhian Brewster to name a few.

Adam Armstrong and Ivan Toney both fit into the “one for the future” category when we were linked with them but the majority of the rest of the players mentioned above would all tick the “experienced” box. The vast majority of those players all have bags of experience in the Championship and would undoubtedly have improved us as a squad had they arrived.

However, we’ve instead signed the likes of Connor Ripley, Joe Rafferty, and Jayden Stockley for combined fees around £1m. The three of them came with little to no previous Championship experience and should they go on to do little to nothing in their time at the club (could easily be argued that’s exactly what has happened) they wind up with practically no sell-on value.

As a club we seem to have moved completely away from our former policy of buying young players with a potential sell-on value should they come to Deepdale and make an impact, exactly like Ben Pearson, Callum Robinson, Alan Browne, Daniel Johnson, Jordan Hugill, and Greg Cunningham all did.

Another thing that I’ll point out is that Alex Neil often gets criticised for not mixing things up but when you have a squad that has had 2 new signings added in going on for 18 months, what else is he supposed to try in order to mix things up week in week out? He’s limited in terms of the options he has to change things on a match by match basis.

Whilst the manager isn’t perfect and people rightly or wrongly point the finger at him, ultimately, questions need to be asked about those above the manager. What is our long-term plan in the transfer window?

It seems as though at the minute, barring the signing of Emil Riis, our strategy appears to be to buy cheap from the lower leagues and hope they come good.

The Future

Where do we go from here then? Granted, it’s been a pretty horrific week for fans but questions need to be asked.

Should Alex Neil not walk or be sacked and he sees out this season, where do we go next season and beyond? I find it incredibly hard to imagine any sort of world where any of the “Big 5” sign a contract extension to take them beyond the end of this season in Lilywhite.

You take Darnell Fisher, Ben Pearson, Ben Davies, Alan Browne, and Daniel Johnson away from this squad and we’re left with a group of players that would probably see us struggle to stay in this league without quality reinforcements. Especially defensively.

Trevor has shown his reluctance to spend money when it comes down to it. In fact, Mark Lawrenson even said as a guest on the podcast, something along the lines of “not spending a transfer fee turns Trevor on.” People will point to the fact he pumps in however many millions every season but as the owner of a football club, that’s surely the bare minimum we would expect from the owner, no?

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Let’s not forget 2010 in a hurry either. I’ll share the opening sentences from the website businessdesk.com that published a piece at the time about Trevor’s acquisition of 51% of the club and his “threat” to fans:

TREVOR Hemmings has acquired 51% of Preston North End and threatened to withdraw financial support if the remaining shareholders refuse to sell up.

Under the Takeover Code the Lancashire tycoon, who recently sold Blackpool Tower, is now obliged to make a mandatory unconditional offer for the remaining shares.

Shareholders have been warned that failure to accept Hemmings’ offer will leave the 122-year-old club facing insolvency.

Does that sound like the owner we’re all led to believe loves the club? He’s obviously going to keep pumping money in every month to keep us afloat because otherwise, he’d lose it all. It’s the next step that fans want to see him take in supporting not just the manager he and Peter Ridsdale chose to employ but also the players and the fans.

Things in football are cyclical and at most clubs, if things aren’t freshened up, there’s going to be a cycle where things become stale and I feel that is exactly what has started to happen at North End and not just with the playing squad, half of whom can leave on a free in a matter of months.

Something else that won’t be helping is the lack of a clear pathway for the academy players to develop, grow, and ultimately break into the first team.

The Tyrhys Dolan situation in the summer, looking back with hindsight now, is just absolutely laughable and the lack of an U23 set up at the club is without a doubt hampering us. In fact, the lack of an U23 side is something that the former Manchester City youngster pointed out as one of the reasons he probably wouldn’t have signed with us had we offered him a contract:

“We agreed that if I did get offered something (at PNE) and another club also came in, we would probably have gone with the other club – only because with the likes of Connor Simpson, Adam O’Reilly, and Jack Baxter, I never actually saw anyone get a real chance to break through during my time at Preston.

“When I was told no, I was a little bit gutted obviously, but I just saw it as an opportunity to get into an under-23s side and that’s what I always wanted – to get into an under 23s, where you’re in and around the first team every day and you can show what you can do.”

You can read the full interview with friend of the pod, George Hodgson here.

It’s been stated that the reason we have no U23 setup is a financial one with Alex Neil quoted in the Lancashire Post as saying:

“The problem we have got is supplementing an Under-23s team.

“All the money put into the first-team to try and have the best starting XI and have the best players available to us in the squad would be diluted to help fund the Under-23s.

“You could create an Under-23s but it would mean money coming from somewhere else which would be the first-team.

“Are you better having 35 players a lot of who are ‘okay’, or are you better having 22 or 23 players who are very good? In my eyes, we are better going down the latter line.”

I don’t think anyone can say now, 2 years down the line, that we have 22 or 23 “very good” players and we still don’t have an U23 setup.

In terms of the immediate future, I hate to say this but I think the end is nigh in terms of the current “cycle”.

Of course, I would love to see as many of the “big 5” re-sign, I would love to see things improve at home and Alex Neil to turn things around but unfortunately, I can’t imagine that happening.

The next few weeks are massive. In fact, December is a very big month for the club and I don’t think it’s beyond the realms of possibility that come the end of the month, we’re talking about a manager-less Preston North End, or perhaps we’ll have a new manager by then.

Ultimately, as much as Alex Neil does have his faults, I feel that the vast majority of the problems at the club are above him. It feels as though, at times, he’s been sent into a boxing ring with both his hands tied behind his back and his shoelaces tied together with how he’s been treated by those above him.

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This is possibly the most split I’ve ever known our fanbase, at least since the Westley days and I think it’s all getting a bit toxic. It feels as though it’s getting to the point where something has to give and let’s be honest, it’s unlikely that those at the top of the club are going to change any time soon.

Finally, if you aren’t following us on twitter, you can find us here – @fromthefinney. Make sure you listen to the latest episode of the From the Finney podcast below. We answer a lot of important questions from North End fans and listeners of the podcast ranging from the lack of a recognised supporter group, the club captaincy, our set pieces, Tom Bayliss and many other points.

If you have anything you would like to share or see published on the site, feel free to email us on fromthefinney@gmail.com and we can sort something out.

NB: picture credit – www.pnefc.net.