Football League founder members; the original Invincibles and first ever double winners; Gareth Ainsworth’s first pro club… Preston North End are steeped in history. Let’s find out what shape they’re in these days.
Ground: Deepdale (since 1880, capacity 23,404)
Second tier seasons: 44 (+47 top flight)
Major honours: First Divison (1888/89, 1889/90), FA Cup (1888/89, 1937/38)
Last season: 9th in Championship
At the point of lockdown, Preston sat 6th in the Championship. With only nine games to go, a play-off spot was theirs to lose. They had just suffered a third straight defeat, but perhaps the prolonged break would give them time to regroup, refocus and come back fighting after the restart.
There was to be no such recovery. North End won just two of those final nine matches and ended the season with a bit of a whimper. Will they come to look back on 2019/20 as a big missed opportunity for a long-awaited flight return (59 years, to be precise)?
The gaffer: Alex Neil
Apppointed: July 2017
Previously managed: Norwich, Hamilton
Played for: Hamilton, Mansfield, Barnsley, Aidrieonians
Preston league record: P138, W53, D41, L44
Neil took over at Deepdale after Simon Grayson left for Sunderland. Having won promotion to the Premier League through the play-offs with Norwich in 2015, he almost got the chance to repeat the feat in his first season with North End, who wound up falling two points short. One of the longer-serving managers in England, the Scot is also the Championship’s second youngest behind new Huddersfield head coach Carlos Corberán.
Since returning to the second tier in 2015, you’ve finished between 7th and 14th every season. To an outsider, that might look like consistency, but has frustration begun to set in that you’re not ‘pushing on’? Frustration was certainly there at the end of last season – we were in the top six for over 50% of the season and only dropped out with five or six games to go. It felt like a big wasted chance, particularly as I think it was a weak division. That said, we constantly punch above our weight so we can’t have too many complaints. This season feels pivotal as I think it may be Alex Neil’s last, and a few key players may end up moving on if we continue to hover in mid-table.
That said, do you feel there’s the same ambition from the club to reach the Premier League as others in the Championship who’ve spent a long, long time outside the top flight (Brentford, Bristol City, Forest…)? Do you have the right combination of financial resources, manager etc. to do it? There is a genuine ambition to reach the promised land; handing Alex Neil the biggest managerial contract in the club’s history and breaking our wage structure to sign Scott Sinclair are clear examples of that. However, we don’t throw money at it in the way that other clubs do. We run a tight ship, which is frustrating, but at times like this I think stability will be a big factor. We have a great coach and a good squad, and with three or four additions we will be very competitive. Keeping hold of Ben Pearson is also key.
Who would you pick out as the players likely to have the biggest impact for you in 2020/21? Anyone who could have a real breakout season? As I’ve just alluded to, Pearson is the key cog in our team. Sitting in front of the defence, he uses his mobility and speed over short distances to mop up any danger, and his reading of the game combined with his aggression and technical ability make him the best player I’ve seen in a North End shirt. There are whispers of Premier League interest, but the COVID situation may just work in our favour.
Josh Earl, our young left-back, may well end up having a break through season after a couple of loan spells in League One. he offers great athleticism and possesses a genuine threat going forward, so I think he has a chance of making an impact.
You’re yet to make a signing – is the COVID factor playing a big part in that and what are your key needs between now and the start of the season? At the time of writing, we have yet to make a move, but I’m led to believe there are plenty of irons in the fire. The introduction of the wage cap in League One and League Two has made it more difficult for us to offload three or four of our unwanted players, so that has slowed down the whole process. Once we shift some of them, I’m sure we will sign a few.
The biggest need is a striker, and ideally one who possesses genuine strength and mobility. We hold interest in a Championship striker who, if a deal comes off, would be a great addition. There’s also a shout for a winger and right back.
All things considered, what are you hoping for from North End this season? What’s a realistic aim? It’s very hard to predict things this season with the extended transfer window, but assuming we keep hold of our better players and add a couple, I think we will be bang in contention for a top six spot. Again, I think it will be a weak version of the Championship this season and North End’s stability could stand them in good stead. The three relegated sides have all had big turnovers of players/staff and there are ‘sleeping giants’ coming up from League One. It’s a real chance for PNE to kick on in what will probably be many players’ last chance with us. The top six is definitely a realistic aim.
When we last met
We have a pretty terrible record against Preston, who’s 5-1 FA Cup trouncing at Adams Park in 2018 – our last encounter in any competition – made it five straight victories against Wycombe and 12 games unbeaten. The most recent league fixtures – in our 2011/12 League One relegation season – both produced thrillers; unfortunately, both were defeats for us, despite Marcello Trotta bagging two of his wild eight-goal haul in eight Wanderers loan appearances on the trip to Deepdale. One of our most famous wins ever was over the same opposition, though: the 4-2 triumph in the 1994 Third Division play-off final, of course – in which Gareth Ainsworth appeared for North End.
Did you know…?
Preston eventually made amends for the aforementioned play-off final loss by winning the 1995/96 Third Division title, thus becoming the third of five teams to be crowned champions of all four English professional divisions (Wolves, Burnley, Sheffield United and Portsmouth are the others).
Header photo: Rept0n1x via Wikimedia Commons
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