Neil pleased with PNE’s progress in his time in charge at Deepdale

Preston North End's manager Alex Neil
Preston North End's manager Alex Neil
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Preston’s visit to Cardiff will be the 25th league game Alex Neil has taken charge of since becoming PNE boss in the summer.

As he readies himself for the televised battle in South Wales, Neil reflects on his first six months in charge with a good deal of satisfaction.

While very much a work in progress, North End have taken some good strides forward over the first half of the campaign.

Competing in and around the play-off zone is the aim and ultimately getting into the Premier League.

Neil points out that PNE going from ‘step one to step 10 straight away’ is not feasible in the way, for example, Wolves have done.

It is about putting the building blocks in place, a task he is relishing.

Neil said: “My first six months I have thoroughly enjoyed, it really has been very good.

“When I first joined the club, we had just lost guys such as Aiden McGeady, Alex Baptiste and Tyias Browning.

“There was a wee bit of an air of scepticism about how we were going to do this year, I don’t think there was a lot of hope in terms of hitting the play-offs or anything like that.

“Then I think that when we started playing, that opinion changed and now the expectation has risen.

“What we have got to do as a club is keep our feet on the ground.

“Things don’t over night but gradually we are improving.

“I think we have shown this year that we are a match for anyone on our day – we should be really proud of what we have done so far.

“That doesn’t mean we will rest on our laurels, we want to kick on, want to try and improve, that is the aim for everyone.”

Neil talked about him and North End seeming a ‘good fit’ when he did his first press conference in July.

Nearly six months on, the Scotsman holds the same view.

“I regard myself as a working class family man, this club and team are very similar,” said Neil.

“We have normal people here, no one gets above themselves.

“They put in the hard graft and we are here every day working really hard for one another.

“We have a whole team ethic, all the attributes and the qualities I look for in people and teams are here.

“This is only the start of things.

“When I came here I spoke about wanting to try to get the team into the Premier League.

“Because of the way we are doing it, that happens in increments rather than going from step one to step 10 straight away.

“I’m hoping that people can see the progress we have made.

“It is not always going to be a smooth road, it is going to be rocky at times.

“But I think what we have got is more than strong enough to come through that.”

North End head to Wales in ninth place, four points off the top-six pace.

The last two draws with Nottingham Forest and Barnsley could be seen as opportunities missed in terms of closing that gap with the play-offs.

However, Neil looks at the bigger picture and is reasonably happy with the state of play.

“For us to be in ninth place, four points outside of the play-offs, is not too bad,” said Neil.

“Consider that we are without Sean Maguire at the moment, that we lost Greg Cunningham for a large part of the season.

“Tom Clarke has only just returned, we had Ben Pearson missing for six weeks too earlier in the season.

“We’ve had some big players missing for us but have largely been able to cope with that.”

Earlier in the season, North End’s team had a young average age.

Neil has gradually been able to add experience to that with Paul Gallagher overcoming early-season injury and illness battles to become a regular, with skipper Clarke also back in the last few weeks.

With Cunningham also having been back on the bench against Barnsley on Boxing Day and in being in line to start at Cardiff, that is another experienced head available.

“I think the best thing for a team is to have youth with legs and naivety, mixed with some experience, know-how and hardened professionals who can help the younger lads,” said Neil.

“The older guys can help the younger ones to dig in when needed.

“We have some great lads here, none of them ever get above themselves .

“They are very humble and a joy to work it.”

Neil is keen for North End to develop more of a ruthless edge in the final third of the pitch.

He felt that was missing against both Forest and Barnsley, costing them the chance of a far more healthy points return.

“I’m a bit frustrated with how the last two games have gone,” said Neil.

“Saying that, we have managed to continue our run in terms of being undefeated for eight games which is excellent at this level.

“But we created enough chances against Forest to have won the game.

“At Barnsley, I thought we created enough in the first half to have scored.

“With how well we have been playing defensively, had we got a goal when we were on top, it would have given us the chance to go on and win the game.

“We have been making a few poor decisions in the final third and that is something we have to try and improve on.

“That is the next step for us, I have spoken for the last month or so about our final touch and pass.

“If we got to the position where we were scoring more goals, coming out at the better end of it and conceding here and there, I would take that.

“We have been working on our attacking play a bit more than our defending of late, that has been our focal point.

“We are a much more attacking team than we were in the past but sometimes that doesn’t convert itself into goals.

“That is the next step for us and something we are working very hard to do.

“It is about decision-making in key areas, when to make the pass or when to shoot.

“The guys at the very top level make the right decisions nine times out of 10.”