To some outsiders, Preston North End are dark horses in the Championship play-off race.
Alex Neil’s men lost for the first time in 10 league games against Middlesbrough on New Year’s Day, meaning they sit three points and three places outside the play-off places ahead of the trip to Millwall on Saturday.
Despite having ground to make up there is an increasing confidence at Deepdale that something momentous can be achieved this season and that their bid for the top six should be taken note of.
Alan Browne is not about to disagree.
“Even with how well we’ve been doing it’s still a bit disappointing,” said the Irish midfielder, who scored twice in the 5-1 FA Cup win at Wycombe last time out.
“Some people might think we’re overachieving but I personally think we’re probably underachieving.
“If he hadn’t been for the bad luck we had with injuries and the spell we went through at that time, we might be in an even better position than we are now.
“It’s still a really good position though and one we can look at and take confidence from.
“We’re looking to get as high up the table as we possibly can and be in and around it at the end of the season.
“We’ve definitely got the quality here and the gaffer’s style of play has really improved us.
“Teams are finding it hard to match us at times because we’ve got such high energy up the pitch and defensively we’re really solid.
“I think we’re as good as any team in this league as we’ve shown from time to time.”
With boss Neil nominated for the manager of the month award and some emerging talent attracting interest in the January transfer window, North End’s profile is certainly rising.
But it is all about what goes on in house, according to PNE’s No.8.
“We’re just focusing on ourselves,” he said.
“We don’t really get much praise but it’s about opinions at the end of the day.
“People should see us as a threat but if not then we’ll keep doing what we’re doing and see where it takes us at the end of the season.
“The run we’ve been on of late has been really good.
“To lose to Middlesbrough in the manner that we did was really disappointing.
“We’ve bounced back now in the cup and hopefully we can get back to winning ways in the league.”
While other teams fielded weakened sides, Neil’s six changes at Wycombe made no difference to the strength of the PNE XI at Adams Park as they marched into the fourth round in style, setting up a trip to Sheffield United at the end of the month.
“It was a brilliant win,” said Browne.
“As we know from past experience, fixtures like that can be tricky ones but it turned out to be a good performance and a great result in the end.
“With the people coming back from injuries now, there’s competition for places and some people knew that this was a chance.
“No one went into the game half-hearted, we all wanted to play well and get ourselves in the team for this week coming.
“If you looked at it from the outside you wouldn’t have known there were many changes to the team.
“We managed to hit them for five, which was really good.”
It could turn out to be a breakthrough afternoon for Browne, whose double saw him answer his manager’s call to add more goals to his game. A fine left-foot half-volley and a penalty made it three for the season after the 45-yard stunner at Cardiff back in September.
PNE boss Neil has moved to defend his industrious midfielder at times in recent weeks, having deployed him further forward than his predecessor Simon Grayson.
“The gaffer’s been getting on to me about scoring goals, especially when I play in that No.10 position where he has been playing me,” said Browne.
“It’s a new role for me this year and one where the manager’s stuck with me, to be fair.
“There are only so many times you can play there and not score though, because I think as a front four, wingers included, you need to be scoring goals if you want to be playing in those positions. I know that myself so it’s something I have been working on.
“So to get on the scoresheet was great and then to score a penalty gives me a big boost of confidence going into next week.”
The first was a stunning strike from 20 yards, fine technique seeing Browne fire into the top corner on his weaker foot.
“I’d take a tap-in but to score how I did was really pleasing,” said the Republic of Ireland international.
“There are only so many times you’re going to score a goal like that though so it’s about getting in the right positions taking my chances when they do come along.
“The gaffer’s been encouraging me to get into the box as much as I can and have been trying to do so.
“For whatever reason I haven’t been scoring.
“Not too many chances come along in Championship games and when they do you’ve got to take them.”
Then came the penalty 12 minutes from time.
Daniel Johnson is Preston’s main man from 12 yards with Paul Gallagher also in the mix but after that the pecking order is open to debate.
“I said the day before that I wanted to take penalties,” Browne said.
“There were a few others who wanted it but as soon as the ref awarded it I was straight over to get the ball and once I had it I wasn’t going to give it to anyone. DJ’s our designated penalty taker and then after that the only other player I’d let take the ball off me is Gally.”
Next up is Millwall on Saturday with PNE keen to build on their cup win.
“You do look at it as an intimidating game but we know what quality we’ve got in the dressing room and we know it’s more than enough to match them,” said Browne.
“We’ll put the atmosphere to the back of our minds come kick off and hopefully give the travelling fans what they deserve.”