Preston North End boss Alex Neil's challenge for midfielder Daniel Johnson
Alex Neil believes a natural pathway has opened up for Daniel Johnson to become a '˜leader' in the Preston squad.
The midfielder’s form has picked up of late, with him scoring three goals in the last five games.
He helped to spark North End’s second-half revival against Aston Villa and then was instrumental in the 4-0 win over Wigan.
PNE manager Neil says DJ’s ability has never been in doubt but the chance is there for him to be one of the experienced figures in the team.
Neil said: “Naturally as you get a bit older you take more of a burden of responsibility.
“Experienced guys like John Welsh, Jordan Hugill and Greg Cunningham have moved on.
“That has opened up some natural gaps for other lads like DJ to be more of a leader, more of a voice, to lead more by example.
“In recent weeks, I think DJ’s performances have been like that.
“DJ is a special player, his athleticism is hard to match.
“That athleticism he can back up with an unbelievable technique which means he can get the ball in tight spaces and find a way out.”
Johnson, who played 156 games for PNE since signing from Villa in January 2015, penned a contract extension in August.
He will be in line to start in North End’s visit to Hull City on Saturday as action resumes after the international break.
Neil told the official PNE podcast: “I say to DJ regularly that he should pick himself for our team.
“But he knows he needs to find a level of consistency that makes him a stalwart in the team.
“In recent weeks DJ has done that and that’s very good to see.”
DJ’s PNE team-mate and close pal Callum Robinson added a third international cap to his collection when he featured for the Republic of Ireland as a substitute in their 0-0 draw with Denmark at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
Robinson came on in the 65th minute and helped to liven up a drab UEFA Nations League clash.
It could well have put him in line to start tomorrow’s game against Wales in the same competition.
In the Denmark game, Sean Maguire was an unused sub, that coming as something of a relief bearing in mind his recent return to action from a hamstring injury.
Alan Browne was not in the matchday squad against the Danes.
Meanwhile, Preston have loaned young striker Connor Simpson to Hyde United until November 17, in order to gain first-team experience.
Simpson, 18, came on as a substitute in the Tigers’ 3-1 home defeat to Gainsborough Trinity on Saturday.