Preston have been there or thereabouts – but no more – for years. But with them third in the Championship, is this the year that all changes?
When Preston shuffled off the Griffin Park pitch on the final day of last season, well beaten 3-0 by Brentford, you would forgive their fans for not feeling particularly optimistic about what lay ahead.
After all, this is a club who ever since returning to the second tier in 2015 above expectations, a club without the budget of half the division, smacking their head on the Championship’s glass ceiling season after season as they remain ‘there or thereabouts’, but never more.
Every season they seem to flit around the edge of the playoffs, teasing their fans with a little hope that this might be the year, only to have that snatched away. That result at Brentford was their sixth defeat in the final eight games of the season, but immediately before that run they were level on points with Aston Villa, outside the top six but with a healthy chance of sneaking into it.
It must be a frustrating existence, but is that going to change this season? As ever, Preston have flown firmly under the radar, but at the time of writing Alex Neil’s side sit third in the table, with four wins from the last five, their two defeats coming on the opening day to Millwall and a ding-dong affair with Swansea when they were at the height of their early season form.
This is a team that couldn’t be more low-key if it was whispering Iron & Wine songs. Their manager is a man who takes the concept of ‘accepting responsibility’ to almost comedic levels, admitting when Preston have played badly with such earnestness that you half expect him to burst into tears sometimes.
Their most famous players are David Nugent, back where he made his name for one last hurrah, plus Ben Pearson and Josh Harrop, the go-to interviewees for the national media whenever Preston are in the news because they started out at Manchester United (combined first-team appearances: one). Their last two players of the year were Ben Davies and Alan Browne: even their players have low-key names. Their big money summer signing, Tom Bayliss, came from Coventry.
They also have one of the most under-appreciated Championship performers of the last few years in midfielder Daniel Johnson: ever since signing in 2015, he’s produced consistently good performances without ever really blowing anyone’s socks off, but so far this season he has four goals and three assists already. Much like the team as a whole, this may well be a campaign in which everyone sits up and takes a bit more notice.
It's a joy to play in this team, we have a strong squad and the mentality is right.
You get the feeling they’re fine with going under the radar, but at the same time would be justified in complaining that they don’t get enough attention. That’s partly because league finishes of 11th, 11th, 7th and 14th are not sexy, and neither is gradual progress.
Another reason could be that, in a world where talk of specific and overarching philosophy is king, Neil doesn’t really operate with a dogmatic style of play to which he insists his team must adhere. Rather, the focus seems to be more on tailoring a gameplan to suit the opposition.
“We’ve got a manager who is probably one of the best I have played for in terms of giving you tactics and also finding out weaknesses which you can use to hurt the opposition,” Paul Gallagher told the Lancashire Evening Post recently.
“It is then down to us to go out on to the pitch and put the plan into play. In the first half we did that, we got in behind them a few times. It is a joy to play in this team, we have a strong squad and the mentality is right.”
That last bit might be the most important: to switch approaches requires a squad not only truly listen to the manager and follow his instructions, but one that is suitably adaptable and willing to change. Take their last two league games: the way they played against Brentford was entirely different to the way they played in the previous game against Birmingham, for example: changing approach in back-to-back games is not, to say the least, easy.
And helpfully enough for the rest of us, Neil explained his tactical thinking after the Birmingham game. “Any square pass they want to press the ball so what we did was bump the full-backs up and dropped the midfield players outside the lines,” he said. “Then Birmingham had to press us through the middle, so we could roll in off the lines.
“That is how we got the free-kick for the goal, Sean rolled in off the line, got on the half turn and drove at them. I felt that was the way to puncture them, while at the same time risking the ball with Pearo (Pearson) and Gally (Gallagher) who are our best ball players. It worked well and we were able to win the game.”
Essentially the reason that Preston stand out is that they don’t really stand out. They have improved incrementally in a footballing world that generally fluctuates wildly, from good to bad, from sensible to bonkers, from stability to chaos.
For years Preston have been an unspectacular nearly team. That could be about to change.
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