Half-century up for PNE’s DJ

Daniel Johnson was on target at Ipswich
Daniel Johnson was on target at Ipswich
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Daniel Johnson chose his 50th appearance for Preston North End to get back among the goals.

The midfielder’s close-range strike against Ipswich at the weekend was his first since netting at Burnley on December 6.

It was his eighth goal of the campaign and 16th in PNE colours – this weekend sees the first anniversary of his £50,000 move to Deepdale from Aston Villa.

North End have certainly had value for money from Johnson over the last 12 months.

In the current football climate, a £50,000 fee is on the nominal side to say the least.

DJ netted eight goals in the second half of last season, four of them coming in consecutive games a month after his arrival in Lancashire.

The 23-year-old has quickly adapted to the Championship this term.

He is PNE’s leading scorer, seven of his goals coming in the league, the other netted in the Capital One Cup against Bournemouth.

Johnson is being encouraged to get further into the box more and sniff out chances closer in, the goal at Ipswich coming from seven yards, his one against Burnley even closer.

He was part of a new-look midfield trio chosen by Simon Grayson at Portman Road.

Alongside him in the engine room were Alan Browne and new boy Ben Pearson.

North End manager Grayson said: “We moved Paul Gallagher one place up to the left wing in a 4-3-3.

“We had the energy of Alan Browne, Ben Pearson and DJ in midfield, which worked well.”

Johnson was the elder statesman of that midfield, with Pearson only recently turning 21 and Browne still a few months away from the same landmark birthday.

For all three, this is their first campaign of Championship football and very much a learning curve.

Grayson can of course add experience to the midfield in the shape of Gallagher, John Welsh and Neil Kilkenny.

Since October, the majority of Gallagher’s games have been in a deep-sitting central role, enabling him to get on the ball early. Against Ipswich, Grayson wanted him further up the pitch, forming a front three with Joe Garner and Eoin Doyle.

He could well go for similar against Brentford at Deepdale on Saturday – North End’s f
irst home game for three weeks.

Pearson’s versatility allows more attacking freedom for Johnson and Browne.

The ex-Manchester United player has been handed the holding midfield role in his first two games for PNE.

As Pearson demonstrated with his run from deep to find the net against Ipswich – it was disallowed for offside against Eoin Doyle – he also has an attacking streak in his locker.

Said Grayson: “Last season when we watched Ben a lot in his loan spell at Barnsley, he was very much a box-to-box midfielder.

“When he went back there for the first part of this season, Barnsley used him in more of a holding role.

“We have sat him just in front of the defence in his first two games and Ben has fitted in ever so well.

“Ben is a young player who we want to work with and develop and it was great to get him here last week.

“You saw what he did from an attacking point of view with the disallowed goal.”