2016/17 review: North End’s key performers

PNE player of the year Aiden McGeady
PNE player of the year Aiden McGeady
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A football team which starts the 
season is rarely the one which finishes it.

Preston took that to the extreme in 2016/17, as a glance at the starting XI for the first and last matches shows.

Only Paul Gallagher started the visit to Reading on August 6 and the Wolves game a week last Sunday.

You would argue that, had they been fit, there would have been starts at Wolves for Tom Clarke and Greg Cunningham.

In the intervening nine months, players have come to the party, some lost their form, others moved on.

Throw all those factors into the mix and you have the steady evolution of the PNE class of 2016/17.

North End’s campaign from a results point of view has been chewed over and analysed.

We know they started badly and ended poorly, with a good 30-odd games in between.

They finished in the same 11th position and on the same 62 points as the previous season.

Admittedly, things were done in a different way, with more goals scored and more shipped.

So which players shone? Who were the models of consistency? 
Who were the surprise packages?

Aiden McGeady won the player of the year award, a rare feat 
for someone 
on loan at Deepdale.

He is the most skilful player in terms of footwork and making room to play, that I have seen in my time watching Preston. In his first three or four months at Deepdale, we saw just flashes of what McGeady was all about.

The goal on his debut was a sign of what would come more often later in the season.

There were two spells of injury for him in October and then December.

McGeady brought out his bag of tricks for the clash with Sheffield Wednesday on New Year’s Eve.

The pass he slid down the side of the box to release Cunningham for North End’s goal that day was a delight.

McGeady became more and more of an influence on the team.

Between February 11 and April 14, he scored seven goals.

The player who it could be said McGeady wrestled the player of the year trophy away from was Ben Pearson.

For a fair few months, the midfielder was Preston’s most consistent performer. What might have cost him a few votes from those undecided between him and McGeady, were too many yellow cards.

Pearson missed six games through suspension for reaching five, 10 and 15 bookings.

Putting the bookings to one side, his play at the heart of midfield was impressive to say the least.

For the first few weeks of the season, Pearson could hardly get a kick.

His only involvement in the first 10 games was in the EFL Cup win over Oldham Athletic.

A second run came at Bournemouth in the same competition and that was a night his luck changed.

It was pretty much the game when the direction of North End’s season changed too.

Through the autumn and winter, Pearson was a model of consistency in the engine room.

He tackled, he passed, he drove PNE on, stacking- up plenty of ‘star man’ awards.

Against Aston Villa at Deepdale, he scored his one goal in club colours to date. Like Pearson, goalkeeper Chris Maxwell used the win at Bournemouth to get his season going.

Recruited as cover for Anders Lindegaard and to push him, he unseated the Dane in September.

Irrespective of form, Maxwell was earmarked 
to play at Bournemouth – 
10 changes that night showed the priority was the league.

But a good performance that evening, on the back of a dip from Lindegaard, saw Maxwell keep goal for every game bar one after that.

With Lindegaard freed, new competition will come in the summer for Maxwell.

At the other end of the pitch, it was a breakthrough season for Jordan Hugill in respect of being a regular starter.

He made 37 starts and finished top scorer with 13 goals, form which attracted winter bids from Ipswich and more recently, interest from Wolves.

For long spells, Callum Robinson played alongside Hugill up front.

Eleven goals was decent enough return from a player who had shown promise but inconsistency in his three loans spells.

Tom Barkhuizen caught the eye after his January move, six goals in seven starts in March and early April a real purple patch.

There is more to come from winger Daryl Horgan with a pre-season under 
his belt after a promising first few months in 
England.

At the back, Clarke was his usual steady self and was sorely missed after that awful injury last month.

Cunningham was almost as consistent as last season. Again, he was a big miss in the last few games.

Paul Huntington put in another revival show. How many times has he forced his way back into contention having been seemingly way out of the picture? Others did not quite make the same impact – plenty then for Simon Grayson to reflect on.