Ben Davies looking to make his mark back at Preston after starring for Fleetwood
Given their modest budget, Preston North End's recruitment team could do worse that turn their attentions to the top players in League One.
Alex Neil has arrived at Deepdale and taking a look around his squad, finds himself with one of division’s top prospects from last season in his dressing room.
Academy product Ben Davies impressed during the second-half of the campaign on loan at Fleetwood Town as Uwe Rosler’s side came up short in the play-offs.
Now the 21-year-old Cumbrian is back with his parent club and ready to show he can cope with the top attacking talent in the Championship after signing a new three-year contract.
“The end of last season was the best loan spell I’ve had,” said Davies, who has also spent time at York City and Newport County amongst others.
“I was playing at the highest level I’ve played at so far and doing well and taking Fleetwood to the play-offs was a good achievement for the club.
“Building on that this season I just wanted to come back and get my head down and see where I was.
“Obviously with the change of management it’s worked out quite well for me.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve been playing all last season or like me you’ve been out on loan or on the fringes.
“Everyone’s got a clean slate and the gaffer stressed that when he came in.
“He’s given everyone a chance and had a good look around the dressing room and it’s a new start for everyone.
“It is a big step up from League One but many players have done it and I think I’m ready to take on the challenge.”
For some players, loan moves are a sign their days are numbered at a particular club.
Not Davies, the left-footer’s spell on the Fylde Coast benefitting all three parties involved.
“There was never any doubt about my future,” said the Barrow-born defender, who joined the Lilywhites at the age of 11.
“I still had two years left on my contract.
“It was the ideal move for me at the time.
“I needed to get out and play some games and it couldn’t have gone much better looking back.
“I knew I could go out and not worry about what was going on in the long term and just try and improve.
“When the gaffer pulled me and said they wanted to offer me an extension I was over the moon.
“I’ve been at the club all my life and I just want to do my best for it and send it in the right direction if I can.”
Davies’ return from Highbury sees him come back into the Deepdale fold as fully-fledged central defender.
He played in a back three under former Wigan and Leeds boss Rosler and now looks set to operate in a two with Neil preferring four at the back.
That is likely to see him in competition with the other left-sided option Tommy Spurr, as the season progresses.
“When I broke into the team left back was the best position for me,” said Davies, who made his PNE debut as a 17-year-old against Coventry back in 2013.
“But I think I’ve matured a bit and I think I play better reading the game a bit further back.
“I’ve still got a lot to work on and know I can improve in areas but I’m keen to get my head down and do that this year.
“I’ve been lucky with the players I’ve been coming through with all along.
“Even last year with Bailey Wright and the skipper Tom Clarke, we’ve got some good experienced centre halves and I’d be stupid not to try and learn from them.”
One thing Rosler and Neil do have in common is their style of play, one which suits Davies.
“I like to have the ball at my feet and move it around and that’s what the new gaffer likes, to have control of possession and ultimately play attacking football,” he said.
“If I can start that from the back then I’ll be happy with that.
“Playing at Fleetwood helped me with that too because that’s the way they wanted to play. Getting on the ball and being comfortable doing it.”
Having hit the ground running on his return to PNE’s Springfields training base for the build-up the new campaign, a groin niggle the only issue that saw him miss the Burnley friendly, like all players Davies now just wants the real stuff to start.
Sheffield Wednesday’s visit to Deepdale on Saturday is the first game in a tough run of fixtures that awaits Neil’s Lilywhites.
“When you first come back in pre-season, you think you’ve got a long year ahead, but once you’re back with the lads you just can’t wait to get the season going really,” Davies said.
“Now we’re all ready and looking forward to it.
“We’ve got a tough start.
“When you look around at all the teams in the Championship every one you look at is a tough game.
“We’re confident in what we’ve got and we’re just looking forward to it really.”
This season will again likely see the Lilywhites fly under the radar with cash being splashed left, right and centre elsewhere.
John Terry will be playing in Davies’ position for Aston Villa having left Chelsea while the PNE prospect might have to mark Â£15 million front man Britt Assombalonga at some point at this season after Middlesbrough stumped up the money to take him from Nottingham Forest.
After back-to-back 11th-placed finishes, Davies however sees no reason why North End can’t mix it with the big boys.
“It’s our budget as much as anything that means people don’t really pay much attention to us,” he said.
“We know we’ve got good players and we know we can compete, we’ve shown that over the last two years.
“Budgets can be talked about but we know what we’ve got and we’re looking forward to taking on the big sides.
“Me personally I think we can definitely reach a top-half finish and push for the play-offs. After two 11th-placed finishes with a new manager coming in with a different style of play there’s no reason we can’t go on and really look for that top six.”