Dave Seddon's PNE Press View
The visit of Reading to Deepdale is an ideal moment to chart Preston's progress and the evolution of their squad over the course of the season.
It is the reverse fixture from the opening day of the campaign, an afternoon when PNE were distinctly second best to the Royals.
If the first-half action at the Madejski Stadium was anything to go by, the season was going to be a long one for the Lilywhites.
They lost 1-0 and indeed were defeated six times in the first eight Championship matches.
A look back at results since show that North End have changed hugely since meeting Reading on August 6, helped by work done on the final day of the summer transfer window and throughout January.
If you compare the side which started in Berkshire seven months ago to the one which drew at Derby County on Tuesday night, the change in appearance is stark.
Seven of those players who lined up at Reading did not do so against Derby.
Two have been sold – Joe Garner to Rangers and Bailey Wright to Bristol City – while Liam Grimshaw is away on loan at Chesterfield.
Anders Lindegaard and Daniel Johnson were on the bench at Pride Park, with Jermaine Beckford and Ben Pringle not making the 18.
In DJ’s case, it must be pointed out that he has been a regular starter, it is only in the last month or so that he’s seen a bit more of the bench.
The players to start both games were Tom Clarke, Paul Huntington, Paul Gallagher and Greg Cunningham.
Those who came off the bench at Reading were Alan Browne, Chris Humphrey and Jordan Hugill – Tommy Spurr, Eoin Doyle, Callum Robinson and Chris Maxwell stayed sat down.
Humphrey is now a Hibs player, Doyle’s on loan with Portsmouth, while Hugill, Robinson, Maxwell and, to some extent Browne, are first-team regulars.
Hugill, Robinson and Maxwell started at Derby, so did Ben Pearson – not in the squad on the opening day – Aiden McGeady, Andy Boyle and Tom Barkhuizen.
Those last three were signed since the Reading game, McGeady in August, the other two in January.
Daryl Horgan and Simon Makienok joined the action as subs in midweek, Horgan another January arrival and Makienok not available on the opening day due to injury.
It all shows how a squad evolves, a side which starts on the opening day rarely one which is operating a few weeks later, never mind this far into the season.
Throw into the mix three other signings made since the campaign kicked off, in the shape of Alex Baptiste, Marnick Vermijl and Tyias Browning, all of whom are out injured at present.
It has been an evolution rather than revolution, the team gradually taking on a new look.
There are changes from game to game but the core of the team tends to stay the same.
When the team took the field that first Saturday in August, would anyone have envisaged ‘marquee’ buy Pringle not even making the matchday squad a few months on?
A fit-again Beckford was an exciting thought. Two red cards and a hamstring strain later, he is on the periphery.
Garner was alongside Beckford that afternoon, the interest from Rangers soon to turn into a bid and move.
Further back on the pitch, the idea of Wright playing in the colours of Bristol City five months later, was just laughable.
Lindegaard had the status of first-choice goalkeeper, with Maxwell back-up on the bench.
One thing which the games at Reading and Derby had in common, were issues at right-back/wing-back.
Grimshaw, a midfielder by trade, got his first taste of playing as a wing-back at Reading, an experiment which ended at half-time with his substitution.
Tom Clarke went to right-back for the second half before a hamstring tweak forced him to give way to Humphrey.
Wind the clock forward to the present day and the three right-backs who have since signed are all keeping the physio busy.
Derby on Tuesday night was a big moment in Boyle’s career, the Irishman finally given his North End debut more than two months after his switch from Dundalk was made official.
Patience has clearly been a virtue for the centre-half as he waited for the nod.
There must have been an element of frustration on his part as he saw compatriot Horgan make the PNE squad immediately.
From the word go, manager Simon Grayson said that Boyle might have to wait a while, and he was reluctant to throw a centre-half straight into the fray – one who had not played in England before.
Boyle’s performance at Derby showed that either the North End boss had been somewhat over-cautious or that the extended settling-in period had done him the world of good.
He will now be eyeing a run in the Preston team to get himself fully up-and-running and used to the demands of the Championship.