Dave Seddon’s PNE pressview

PNE boss Alex Neil
PNE boss Alex Neil
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It seems an age since the curtain came down on last season, that in Preston’s case happening after the yawn-fest at Wolves.

Three months on, it is curtain-up time on the 2017/18 campaign as the Lilywhites face Sheffield Wednesday at Deepdale this afternoon.

While May and most of June was to drag from a football point of view, things burst into life at PNE on June 29.

That was the day Simon Grayson headed up the A1 to Sunderland and the search began for his successor.

Step forward Alex Neil less than a week later, and a month into the job, he will today oversee his first league game as North End manager.

If May and June dragged, then July and the first few days of August have flown by.

This last few weeks has been a ‘getting to know you’ period for Neil and Preston.

A new manager with new ideas and a new style of play for his squad to adapt to and for the supporters to get used to.

Steadily things have been coming together and it will be put to the test when the Owls fly into town.

It is quite a test too, with the visitors reaching the play-offs two years running and determined to go one better this time.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this transition period, with it adding much more spice to the routine of pre-season.

The importance of the friendly matches rose a few notches.

What are usually muscle and lung stretchers turned into auditions in front of Neil, a chance to impress the new man and an opportunity for him to get his message across.

The friendly results were decent, just the one defeat against Burnley.

We saw a progression, North End looking far slicker against Fleetwood last week than they had been in their visit to Stockport a fortnight before.

In that time, the 4-2-3-1 system became the norm, the players getting more used to the passing from the back style favoured by Neil.

It has not been flawless by any means, the temptation at times being to slip back to making a safer pass.

There is a concern too that the two goals conceded against Burnley and the one at Fleetwood all came from headers at set-pieces.

A work in progress would be the way to describe this, much progress having been made in adapting to what Neil wants but clearly there remains work to do.

Will that be something to bear in mind as supporters consider their expectations for the season?

Does the change at the top mean more leeway needs to be given?

The aim within the North End camp, certainly from speaking to Neil and his squad, is to better the 11th place of the last two seasons.

Wandering off the path slightly here, but that 11th place finish should have been higher in May.

One point from the last six games was relegation form, not that of a side which had touched the edges of the play-off race.

Was it that damp squib of a finish which Grayson saw as a reason to go and take on a new challenge?

Perhaps the change has suited both parties, with Neil coming in providing a fresh outlook and new voice.

Stability has benefited PNE greatly over the last four years, Grayson exiting with the club in a far better state than he found it in early 2013.

Change was hoisted on Preston on the penultimate day of June, this is the time to embrace it.

Neil has taken charge ahead of a season in which the Championship is at its toughest for many years, that certainly the case in terms of the financial imbalance which exists in the division.

The gulf is huge between the clubs coming down from the Premier League – their fall softened by parachute payments – and those teams hoping to get their time in the sun in the top flight.

It is not an exact science though, that those dropping down automatically get back up.

Only Newcastle did it last season, Norwich and Aston Villa about to start a second season at this level.

Of the trio who have come down from the Premier League this time, you would say that Middlesbrough look the best bet to achieve what Newcastle did in May.

At Sunderland, Grayson has his work cut out to make them stable, while Hull look an unknown quantity under their new Russian coach.

So who look like being the runners and riders in this season’s promotion race?

I have gone for Boro, Villa and Derby as my promoted three in a poll of local hacks covering Championship clubs.

Boro have invested well and made a sensible choice when appointing Garry Monk as manager during the summer.

There were signs Villa were coming too under Steve Bruce towards the end of last season.

Saying that, recruitment at Villa Park this close season has been at the older end of the market – John Terry, Glenn Whelan and Chris Samba – when perhaps it is younger legs which carry teams over the line.

Derby will be solid under Gary Rowett who got a few months of last season to run the rule over what he had at Pride Park.

I liked the look of Fulham last term and was surprised they didn’t make it past the semi-finals of the play-offs.

They’ve kept hold of their best players and recruited well, and in Slavisa Jokanovic have a very talented coach.

On reflection, leaving the Cottagers out of my three to go up might not have been the wisest move.

Down at the other end of the table, I’ve predicted a season of struggle for Barnsley, Burton and QPR.

With Bolton subject of wage caps and embargos, you could thrown them into the mix too.

So what about North End?

I think they can push on and improve on 11th, some of the attacking play I’ve seen in pre-season offering plenty of reasons for optimism.

The defence needs work and we will all breath a little easier when the back line is reinforced.

The start of the season is a time for optimism and let’s hope that feeling continues.