PNE star ready for first shot at the Championship

Paul Huntington
Paul Huntington
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Paul Huntington is preparing for his Championship bow as Preston North End start their season against Middlesbrough on Sunday.

The defender was PNE’s player of the year in their promotion campaign, putting in a number of commanding performances at the back.

He also chipped in with nine goals, scoring at Wembley as the Lilywhites put Swindon to the sword with ruthless efficiency.

That 4-0 win booked North End’s return to the second tier after four years away.

For Huntington, these are uncharted waters, although he has played at a higher level.

His career started in the Premier League at Newcastle before he dropped down to League One to join Leeds.

The Cumbrian has since played for Stockport, Yeovil as well as Preston at that level.

Hence his excitement at this new opportunity – one which he is relishing.

Huntington told the Evening Post: “I’m looking forward to the season getting underway.

“We have worked hard during pre-season training and these next couple of days will be spent fine-tuning for the Middlesbrough game.

“During pre-season we have got ourselves fit and got as many minutes on the pitch as possible.

“But the intensity of a league game is not one which you can reproduce in a friendly or a training session.

“The intensity in a proper game is so much higher and you tend to pick that up over the first handful of matches.

“Your pre-season work is there to stand you in good stead for the rest of the season, it is a base.”

North End’s televised start is one of the toughest that they could have asked for.

Boro come to Deepdale (12pm) as one of the strong favourites to get promoted to the Premier League.

They were 90 minutes away from doing just that in May but lost to Norwich City 2-0 in the Championship play-off final.

Their target this season is to complete the job and money has been spent to help them achieve that goal – Stewart Downing their marquee signing of the summer.

With the transfer window open for another three weeks, expect more cash to be spent.

Huntington acknowledges the challenge which North End face this weekend and thinks similar examinations await over the coming weeks and months.

“It is not just Middlesbrough on Sunday which will be a tough test, all 46 games will be hard,” said the 27-year-old.

“We have plenty of big tests ahead of us but it is something we are all looking forward to.

“As a player, you want to test yourselves against the best and at the highest level you can.

“Middlesbrough are a very good team with some good players.

“We will try and impose our game on them, put our game plan into operation.

“With being at home on the first day, we are anxious to do well and put on a good show.

“Sunday is part of a very fast start to the season.

“We have six games in August, maybe seven if we make progress in the Capital One Cup.

“Such an intense start can be good to have, your match fitness gets topped up and there is a chance to put points on the board early on.”

Promotion in May will see North End’s squad arrive in the Championship with plenty of confidence and optimism.

Huntington himself can look back on an excellent season which was something of a slow burner.

It was not until October 21 that his name appeared on the team-sheet for a league game.

Indeed, his Deepdale future looked uncertain before then.

Opportunities arose for him to move on but he opted to stay where he was and battle for a return to the squad.

That chance came at Gillingham, he scored the winner that night and was to be an integral part of the defence from then on.

Aside from a short absence after getting clattered by his own goalkeeper Sam Johnstone in the game at Fleetwood, he was one of the first names written on the team sheet.

Supporters recognised that when they voted him as their player of the year.

Said Huntington: “It is not just myself who is going into the season with confidence, the whole squad are confident.

“We are the new package in the Championship and hopefully we will surprise a few people.

“As a group, we have not ourselves any specific targets.

“Our aim is just to put as many points on the board as possible and see where that takes us.

“The gaffer has made a few additions to the squad and there will no doubt be a few more lads coming in during the transfer window.

“The new players have settled in well and that is not a surprise because we are a welcoming group here with a good spirit.

“Hopefully we will get a settled side together quickly who will get a run of games.

“This is a new challenge, a tough one but very exciting.

“It will be good to walk out on to the pitch on Sunday and get started.”

Should Huntington start against Boro, it will be his 125th appearance in a Preston shirt, this the start of his fourth season at Deepdale.