Simon Grayson admits that Preston’s return to the Championship has been rather back to front in terms of what he had predicted.
With the season a third of the way through, it will be from a satisfactory 17th place which the Lilywhites resume action on Saturday against Lancashire rivals Blackburn.
North End manager Grayson regards the taking of 17 points from 16 games as ‘solid’ progress, the signs there in recent weeks that better is to come.
The manner in which his side have put points on the board – they boast the joint-highest number of clean sheets but are the division’s second-lowest scorers – is not quite what Grayson saw happening as he put plans in place before the season.
“When you prepare for a season in a new division, you can be a bit unsure about how things are going to go,” Grayson told the Evening Post.
“You think, ‘Can we adapt to it, can we compete’?
“We have a realistic aim of what we have got at this club and what we can do for the whole of this season.
“Being in the position we are now represents quite a solid start and is something that we can build from.
“Like other clubs, we have suffered with injuries and suspensions, with us not having the biggest of squads.
“But the players who have come into the side have kept everything going.
“I think we have been a bit unfortunate not to have had one of the best strikers available to us in Jermaine Beckford. As an overall picture, had you asked me at the start of the season if I thought we would be short of goals, then the answer would have been ‘no’.
“Did I think we would be on a run of six clean sheets on the trot? I would have been very surprised, given that a lot of our lads hadn’t played in the Championship before.
“The roles are reversed but I’m really pleased with what we have done.
“I didn’t expect us to be struggling for goals and I thought we might just get punished because of the level of quality you find in the Championship.
“When you look at every game this season, we have not been dominated by any particular individual or any team so far.
“That gives us plenty of confidence and is something we want to keep building on.
“If you look through the group of defenders we have, Tom Clarke probably didn’t play much at this level when he was at Huddersfield.
“It was a while ago that Greg Cunningham played in the Championship with Bristol City.
“Calum Woods wasn’t a regular when he was with me at Huddersfield.
“So a lot of credit to them for the way they have grasped things and taken on board what is needed to get results and play well at this level.
“Scoring goals was not something I thought we would struggle with.
“When deadline day went, we had Joe Garner, Jordan Hugill, Stevie May, Will Keane and Eoin Doyle.
“A lot of clubs would like that calibre of player. It is about developing people and letting them find their feet at this level.”
Grayson thinks that while there has been a shortage of quality at times in North End’s play, one thing which they have not lacked in belief.
While belief levels might not have been sky-high in September when results did not go their way, they did not, at the same time, drop through the floor.
“The players have never lacked confidence,” Grayson said.
“One of the last things we always say to the players is that when they go out on to the pitch, be as good as you can against the person you are up against.
“It doesn’t matter what the names are and who they might have played for.
“They have earned the right to play at this level and should not fear who they are up against.
“In our last game against Queens Park Rangers, they had Charlie Austin, Junior Hoilett and Matt Phillips up against them.
“Before the game, we talked about how good it would feel to keep a clean sheet against one of the hottest properties outside of the Championship in Austin and two wingers who are as good as any in this division.
“It is a massive incentive to come out on top against top players like that.
“The last thing you want to be is embarrassed, you don’t want to get ripped to pieces,
“This division is about challenges like that, every game there is quality to face.
“Jordan Rhodes is one of the best strikers outside of the top flight and he is here with Blackburn next.
“It’s not just Rhodes at Blackburn, Ben Marshall and Craig Conway have played at good levels.
“Then we move on to play Fulham who have got Ross McCormack, Matt Smith and Mousa Dembele at the top end of the pitch.
“Can we get the better of them? If more players come out on top of their individual battles, then collectively we have a better chance as a team of winning.
“When I was a player, it gave me a big buzz to have won my individual battle.
“The satisfaction that you get when you come off the pitch having played well against a top player is brilliant.
“Last season when we were at the top end of League One, it was almost assumed that you would win week in, week out.
“The challenge is a bigger one this year, with there being more quality.”
PNE are now in the second week of the third international break of the season.
The regular breaks since the end of August have given the opportunity for a rest and for reflection on the block of matches just gone.
Such a luxury is off the menu after this week, it will be late March when the next break comes around.
By then, the division will be well shaped and hopefully North End find themselves in a decent position.
“Our recent form has been good,” said Grayson who is the Championship’s fifth longest-serving manager.
“If you look back on the previous block of games, we probably played quite well without getting our rewards.
“Our form in October and early November now gives us something to build off.
“We play some big clubs in the run-up to Christmas. There is only one Tuesday night game against Birmingham in December, so that will mean we get plenty of time on the training ground.”
Grayson is enjoying the task of getting PNE settled in the Championship.
“As a manager, you are testing yourself on a regular basis,” said the 45-year-old.
“You have to be as well prepared as you can be, give the players the information on the opposition which they need while concentrating on what we are going to do.
“You have to be ready for different situations, be ready to change things if necessary.
“Going back to the QPR game again, before the game I had considered playing a 4-3-3 system because their full-backs could be a problem.
“We decided to start 3-5-2 but there was always the plan ‘B’ of the 4-3-3 which we did change to early on.
“You have to be thinking all the time and testing yourself all the time.
“Once you stop doing those things, the results go against you and you end up out of a job.
“We will keep working hard to climb the table.”