Barkhuizen can build on impressive first year with PNE

Tom Barkhuizen scores in the Deepdale pre-season friendly against Newcastle United
Tom Barkhuizen scores in the Deepdale pre-season friendly against Newcastle United
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For musicians it is the difficult second album.

For teams impressing after promotion, it is second-season syndrome.

For Tom Barkhuizen, it is a case of trying to live up to the high standards he set for himself in his first season at Deepdale.

After moving from Morecambe and the lower reaches of League Two the lightning quick forward gave a glimpse of what might be to come with some impressive performances from the bench.

Then he set the Championship alight with six goals in his first six starts, picking up March’s Player of the Month prize along the way.

Now the challenge is to match and even better those performances which is easier said than done.

Always honest, the 24-year-old admits North End fans have not seen the best of him yet this season.

“Mentally it can be a challenge,” said the Lilywhites’ No.29.

“The expectation is a lot higher than last season and I think I could have done a little bit better so far.

“Saturday against Reading was my best game so far. I got a lot more involved.

“It would be nice to get off the mark but as long as we’re winning and playing well it’s not really important.

“I don’t just judge myself on goals and assists, it’s all-round play.

“I have been disappointed with the first three games in an attacking sense but the manager wants me to do a job defensively as well and I think I’ve been doing that pretty well.

“Those are the things that people maybe don’t see.

“They maybe judge you on your goals and assists but the manager’s been happy with my work-rate off the ball and I’m confident enough in my own ability that once I’m up and running I’ll hopefully take last season’s form and do it again.”

Like the rest of the dressing room, Barkhuizen is trying to adapt to a new style of play with Alex Neil wanting different things from his wide players than Simon Grayson did.

“It’s been really good with the new manager,” Barkhuizen said. “He has a way of playing and he’s trying to implement that.

“There have been signs from the start of the season that we are playing differently to last season.

“We’re pressing a lot higher, it’s a lot more intense.

“It is a lot harder than last year as a wide man.

“But with the young squad that we’ve got there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to press for long periods of the game.

“You look at Sheffield Wednesday, Leeds to an extent – until Ben Pearson got sent off – and Reading,

“We just kind of overran them in midfield with the three we had in there and then the wide men pushing on.

“There’s a lot more tracking back but you’ve got to do everything you can to help the team win.

“I’m really enjoying it and hopefully I can start scoring soon and help the boys in that way.”

It has all led to what, for some, has been a surprising set of results.

Many expected Neil’s new style of play to bring high-scoring games but that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

It is two goals for and one against, with Jordan Hugill’s volley against Reading the only goal from open play in a North End game this season, the previous two having been penalties.

“The surprising thing for most people will be that given the amount of goals we scored in pre-season that we haven’t quite hit the heights at the start of the season,” Barkhuizen said.

“People were saying that maybe defensively we’d been weak over the last couple of seasons.

“But as a team we’ve been really solid and it’s now just taking that next step in the final third of making more chances and taking them. We’ll work hard to do that and I’m confident they will come.”

More opportunities did come PNE’s way in the win over Reading, North End doing everything but extend their winning margin at Deepdale.

It took the Lilywhites’ tally to seven points from their opening four games, a good return against some of the top sides in the division.

“I think as a team that was our best overall performance as well,” Barkhuizen said.

“We’ve come up against some really strong teams. The Derby game was a little bit disappointing from all of us but we bounced back in the right way.

“If you look at the last couple of seasons we’ve tended to start pretty slow.

“But to get seven points out of the four games we’ve had so far is a really good start and hopefully we can build on it on Saturday.”

Things do not get much easier with North End heading to title favourites Middlesbrough next on Saturday.

“I don’t really know much about them to be honest,” Barkhuizen said.

“I know they’ve spent a hell of a lot of money, that’s for sure.

“They’re obviously a really big team at this level.

“They’ve got some players who have attracted interest from bigger teams and have really big price tags.

“In this league it doesn’t matter who you come up against though, you know it’s going to be a tough game.

“On paper we’ve probably played four of the stronger teams who are going to be up there at the end of the season.

“But it doesn’t matter who we play, we take every game the same whether the team we’re playing is at the top or the bottom.”

It represents another game where Preston will go in under the radar despite their promising start, but that will not cross the minds of anyone in the away dressing room at the Riverside Stadium.

“We don’t look at anything that’s being said on the outside,” Barkhuizen said.

“We know what we’re like as a group, what we’re like as a team.

“We go into every game thinking we can win.

“We don’t care what other people think, whether we’re underdogs, whether we’re favourites.

“We just want to go out and do the job and hopefully we can have another good year.”