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Preston well in the mix despite recent downturn - Interview
Friday, 6th Dec 2019 16:41 by Clive Whittingham

A refereeing error at the end of their Monday match with West Brom means it’s now three defeats on the spin for Preston North End, but as Championship Pod host James Vickers tells us it’s still been a superb start to the season for Alex Neil’s men.

Very good start to the season from PNE, currently sixth, what have you made of it so far?

I think even the most optimistic Preston fan didn’t see this coming at the start of the season. We had a very average transfer window, only bringing in a few players such as Patrick Bauer and David Nugent, the former being one of the star players in the division so far this season. Andre Green was brought in from Aston Villa but he has hardly kicked a ball, the same with Tom Bayliss, brought in for big money from Coventry but for the most part hasn't featured.

There was frustration going into the season that we didn’t have the ambition needed to be successful in this division and seemed content with hovering around mid-table. The start that we have made has certainly caught me by surprise.

As far as on field goes we have come out of the blocks flying, turning Deepdale into a real fortress again by winning the majority of our home games bar two, one which we drew to Bristol City and the other the controversial defeat on Monday against West Brom.

The away form has been the only disappointing thing so far really, for a team pushing top six we are dropping too many points away with defeats against teams such as Millwall, Reading, and Derby County last time out. If we can correct that and pick up points away like we did last season then there's no reason why we can't sustain this good start.

I think the key for us so far, especially at home, has been the ability to turn draws into victories, we currently have four in 19 games which is the joint fewest in the top six. Over the past few seasons we have had a tendency to draw far too many games to mount a serious play off push. We have always been a hard team to beat, but equally, found it hard to beat teams at times. This season so far though we have found that perfect balance.

Preston league results so far…
Millwall 1-0 Preston Wallace 33
Preston 3-0 Wigan Maguire 6, Moult 39, Gallagher 59
Swansea 3-2 Preston Baston 45, 69, Byers 63 – Rafferty 11, Johnson pen 67
Preston 3-1 Stoke Johnson 7, Bodin 25, Harrop 65 - McClean 89
Preston 2-1 Sheff Wed Johnson pen 32, pen 65 – Fletcher 78
Forest 1-1 Preston Adomah 79 – Bodin 40
Preston 2-0 Brentford Maguire 4, Barkhuizen 70
Birmingham 0-1 Preston Maguire 23
Preston 3-3 Bristol City Gallagher pen 45, Johnson pen 51, Bauer 70 – Moore 29, Weimann 36, Baker 60
Boro 1-1 Preston Assombalonga 42 – Harrup 40
Preston 5-1 Barnsley Johnson 31, 61, Barkhuizen 50, Pearson 63, Harrup 77 – McGeehan 43
Reading 1-0 Preston Miazga 90
Preston 1-1 Leeds Barkhuizen 74 – Nketiah 87
Preston 3-2 Blackburn Barkhuizen 53, 82, Johnson pen 65 - Rudd og 1, Gallagher 11
Charlton 0-1 Preston Gallagher pen 58
Preston 3-1 Huddersfield Stockley 4, Browne 33, Gallagher pen 50 – Bacuna 74
Derby 1-0 Preston Waghorn 33
Hull 4-0 Preston Bowen 30, 77, Magennis pen 48, Grosicki 51
Preston 0-1 West Brom Austin pen 90

Suddenly though, three defeats in a row without scoring, including a really random 4-0 at Hull – what’s caused this?

It seems to be the go-to excuse but injuries have come at the wrong time. The Hull and West Brom games especially highlighted our lack of depth at the back and as a result we have dropped several places down the table which has been extremely frustrating. We were top this time a month ago.

The Hull game was extremely disappointing and I think, honestly, we just got it completely wrong. We were far too slow to close down the space to their wide players such as Bowler and Grosiki and they punished us as a result. Jared Bowen was in brilliant form as well which didn't help but we were makers of our own downfall. Lessons will have been learnt from that and I think we showed that with a much better performance on Monday vs West Brom, even though we were robbed at the death - yes, I am still fuming with the decision.

Alex Neil heavily linked with Stoke earlier in the season but stayed, seems to be doing a great job, universally popular among the support?

The Alex Neil to Stoke reports did not come as a surprise as he is a fantastic manager but I was never worried that he would leave us. The links to West Brom last year certainly tested his resolve but knowing that he opted to stay with us rather than leave made me certain he would stay this time as well.

The job he's done has been fantastic so far, taking us from a steady mid-table championship side into a side now capable of challenging for the play offs. if he stays for the duration of his contract I have no doubts that he will get us into the top six, and then hopefully beyond.

Stand out players and weak links in the side?

The main strength is definitely in our attack, 100%.

Apart from those results I just mentioned we have been brilliant this season going forwards, up until three weeks ago had scored the most goals in the league whilst being one of the lesser sides in terms of creating chances. I think it still applies that, in short, give our forwards a sniff of goal and they will punish you.

Daniel Johnson has been arguably the player of the season so far for us with seven goals and four assists. He was always a talented player for us but seemed to have one good game in about five or six. This year though, for whatever reason, he is having those games week in week out. So attacking wise he is definitely the stand out.

The main issue I have is that we are light in the full back areas with no real cover. Alan Browne who was brilliant as a number ten last season has been deployed as an emergency right back at times, and Joe Rafferty who is a right back by trade has had to fill in at left back. Both have been solid in their makeshift positions but it is definitely an area that we need to address in the next transfer window.

Other than that there isn’t too much I can complain with at the moment. We are scoring goals (for the most part) and conceding less than we usually do.

Preston have been a real bogey side for QPR in recent times, better scouted players and quite a niggly style that we just don't deal with and fall victim to Ben Pearson every time. Has it evolved at all? What does this season's PNE look and play like?

It always catches me out when teams say we are their bogey side, especially QPR as it is one of the grounds I least look forward to visiting, along with Reading where we always get beaten!

In terms of a style this season it tends to be influenced by who is up front. Jayden Stockley who has come into the side recently favours the long ball approach (which I find infuriating as we have become a really good footballing side) as he has somewhat of an ability to hold the ball up and bring into play midfield runners such as Tom Barkhuizen and Daniel Johnson.

Personally, I prefer our brand of football when we keep it on the deck and look to feed the likes of Barkhuizen and Billy Bodin, the midfielders we have such as Johnson and Gallagher flourish when the ball is at their feet and we are moving it quickly. We tend to play this more so at home, and you only have to look at the contrast in results at home than away from home to see that we are so much better playing this way.

Time will tell how we decide to play on Saturday, I'm just hoping that its the latter and we don't revert to basic long ball football as we are much, much better than that.

Any hint of January transfer activity to come?

Nothing has been linked as of yet, but I certainly think it is required. The main area for me would be in the full back areas, and you only have to look at the recent West Brom game to see this. Alan Browne, a central midfielder by trade played right back, while Joe Rafferty a Right back filled in, as he has done for a large part of this season, at left back.

Darnell Fisher, as good as he is at right back has the same frustrating tendencies as Ben Pearson in which he picks up too many silly bookings and therefore adequate cover is essential. Andy Hughes at left back has struggled with injuries, and Josh Earl was loaned out to Bolton with no cover brought in.

Further forward a winger would be a priority. Andre Green who signed from Aston Villa on a loan deal has been non-existent so far while Josh Ginnelly would benefit from a loan out to get regular game time. That’s two wingers who have hardly featured and so a body in to provide quality out wide with be high on my shopping list. Someone from a Premier League team looking for an opportunity such as one of the Manchester United youngsters would be a good idea.

Ins: >>> Tom Bayliss, 20, CM, Coventry, £1.98m >>> Patrick Bauer, 26, CB, Charlton, Free >>> David Nugent, 34, CF, Derby, Free >>> Andre Green, 21, LW, Villa, Loan

Outs: Callum Robinson, 21, CF, Sheff Utd, £7m >>> Marnick Vermijl, RB, Maastricht, Free >>> Andy Boyle, 28, CB, Dundalk, Free >>> Michael Howard, 19, CF, Morecambe, Free >>> Chris Maxwell, GK, Hibs, Loan >>> Tom Stead, 19, CB, Chorley, Free >>> Marnick Vermijl, 27, RB, Maastricht, Free >>> Tommy Spurr, LB, Released >>> Ben Pringle, CM, Released >>> Graham Burke, 25, CF, Shamrock Rovers, Loan >>> Chris Maxwell, 28, GK, Hibs, Loan >>> Connor Simpson, 19, CF, Accrington, Loan >>> Jack Armer, 18, LB, Lancaster, Loan >>> Josh Earl, 20, LB, Bolton, Loan

Can a promotion push be maintained this season?

I think as I mentioned above with the correct signings in January we certainly can maintain it. The squad as a whole has been kept together over the past few seasons and that is definitely benefiting us on the pitch. I think where we are at now is a perfect base for a serious promotion push, we just need the right additions to take us to that next level.

I'm not usually the most optimistic Preston fan but I still have a good feeling about this season given how well we have started.

Links >>> Official Website >>> Lancashire Telegraph – Local Press >>> From The Finney – Blog >>> Deepdale Digest – Blog >>> PNE Online – Forum

The Twitter/Instagram @loftforwords, @_jamesvickers, @ChampionshipPod

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