Dave Seddon's PNE Press View
A month ago, Alex Neil had almost reached the point of asking for volunteers to play in the centre of defence.
For the second half of the Aston Villa game, midfielder Alan Browne found himself in the role of stopper – some move, bearing in mind he had started as the No.10.
Paul Huntington, Tom Clarke and Ben Davies were all sidelined for that game against Villa.
Huntington’s absence was self-inflicted in that a ban for five yellow cards kept him sat in the stand.
But Clarke had been out since April after snapping his Achilles tendon in two and Davies was recovering after surgery to remove his appendix.
Throw in Tommy Spurr’s torn medial ligament and the fact Calum Woods and Josh Earl were both injured in the first half that night, and it is a reminder of the problems Neil was facing.
Wind the clock forward to the present day and the North End boss suddenly has options.
Huntington’s ban was soon over and done with, while Davies and Clarke have since returned.
Neil shoehorned all three into the starting XI for last week’s win over Queens Park Rangers at Deepdale.
It meant Davies shuffling across to left-back, Clarke partnering Huntington in the middle.
To see Clarke back on the pitch from the start after such a serious injury, was a welcome sight.
He was to be sacrificed at half-time to allow Davies to move back to centre-half alongside Huntington.
All the same, it was 45 minutes of football in the tank and Clarke will be all the better for that as he strives for match fitness. How Neil chooses to go at Burton Albion with his defensive selection, will be interesting.
At present, I would say that the Huntington/Davies pairing is PNE’s strongest.
It is an all-Cumbrian one at that, Carlisle and Barrow their respective home towns.
Both are fully fit, Davies’ absence after his operation a relatively short one.
Naturally left sided, he balances out the defence and is the most comfortable of Preston’s defenders with the ball at his feet.
Davies has come on in leaps and bounds this season, the springboard being his loan spell with Fleetwood in the second half of last term.
That gave him a long run of football at the top end of League One in a position he feels most comfortable in.
Credit to Davies, he has taken that on in the division above and is now seen as an established figure in the North End squad.
Huntington next to him is enjoying a fine season, the skipper’s armband he has worn in Clarke’s absence and that of Greg Cunningham, a responsibility that he has thrived on.
I’ve remarked before that Huntington is a survivor at North End.
More than once during his five-and-a-half years as a Preston player, his future looked to be elsewhere.
However, he has bounced back to be a play-off final scorer, a player of the year winner and Mr Consistent at the heart of the defence.
He can also boast the best nickname at the club, fans have christened him the ‘Cumbrian Cannavaro’.
The broad grin he had on his face when he was asked about the nickname at this week’s press conference was a giveaway that it sits nicely with him.
I’m not saying that the Huntington/Davies axis will always be in place.
It might be that Neil sees things differently, although he clearly felt that was the best option for the second half against 10-man QPR when Preston needed to be on the front foot.
Injury, suspension and a dip in form are always factors lurking around the corner and squads are put in place for such eventualities.
Hence Neil must be so pleased and relieved to have choices available.
He was content to play Andy Boyle in the centre of defence when required, but Huntington, Davies and Clarke seem to be his first three options.
When it comes to the back line, would it be much of a surprise if it remains as it is in the January window?
Providing Cunningham, Spurr and Earl return from their injuries, it seems a defence which is pretty well stocked.
I would imagine that the focus of Preston’s shopping will come further forward. A striker is a must, two if someone hits the tipping point with Jordan Hugill.
Someone to play the Sean Maguire role – out wide or more centrally – would not go amiss, while cover and more competition for Ben Pearson has to be a priority.
Meanwhile , the FA Cup draw was a low-key one for North End on Monday night, landing an away draw at Wycombe.
It might not have been the glamorous money-maker some wanted, however it does represent a chance to progress in the competition.
I’m of the view that a good cup run can go hand-in-hand with strong league form.
Should PNE find a way past Wycombe – managed by the most decent of blokes in Gareth Ainsworth – there is prize money to be had and a place in the fourth-round draw which offers the chance of being paired with one of the Premier League sides.