Dave Seddon’s PNE Press View: Preston’s season of progress

Callum Robinson opens the scoring in the final-day victory over Burton Albion
Callum Robinson opens the scoring in the final-day victory over Burton Albion

If there was a ‘right’ way to fall short of the top six in the season’s finale last week, then Preston North End did so by beating Burton Albion.

Derby’s victory over Barnsley at the same time rendered the Deepdale win academic, as far as the 
play-off race was concerned.

Just think if the Rams had lost and North End had failed to win – that would have been unbearable.

As it was Alex Neil’s men took care of themselves and finished the campaign with a flourish, ending with a fourth win in five games.

Just once previously during the season had Preston put together such a run, which came in late November and December when they beat Bristol City, drew against Norwich and then put QPR, Burton and Sheffield United to the sword.

And so another season came to a conclusion – my 41st watching North End and the ninth covering them on behalf of this publication.

How did I find it? For starters, no one could deny it was a very decent season.

The Lilywhites finished in their highest position since 2009 when Alan Irvine took them into sixth place.

Importantly, there was the jump in position and points tally from the last two seasons.

In 2015/16 and 2016/17, they had finished in 11th place on 62 points.

When North End slipped back to 11th after losing at Reading last month, you did fear that position was becoming their spiritual home.

To move up to seventh and accumulate 73 points, for me represented a strong performance.

On the flip-side of the coin you could argue that this was an opportunity missed in terms of the play-offs.

With only a gap of two points between Derby and PNE in the final reckoning, you find yourself looking at certain games where points went begging.

Preston won’t be unique in doing that, 20 other sides in the Championship will be assessing where things could have gone better.

The three who won’t be doing so are Wolves, Cardiff and whoever joins them in the Premier League via the play-offs.

Had North End steadily risen up the table to finish seventh, there wouldn’t have been the expectation.

But those few weeks in September and October spent in the top six, gave us a taste of what success could be like.

There is no doubt that Preston made progress in 2017/18 – the stats are there in points and position.

Last year they could be said to have levelled off in terms of finishing exactly how they had done in their first season back at this level.

The bar was certainly raised this time, helped by the fresh approach from Alex Neil, who brought new ideas and a different outlook.

To have worked with what in the main was an inherited squad and produced a high finish, deserves much credit.

Now the challenge is there to climb again in 2018/19, even an improvement of one place would take them into the play-offs.

Of course it is not a simple case of night following day in the rough and tumble of the Championship.

Seventh place one year does not automatically turn into play-offs the next, it has to be earned.

But should the squad be given that bit more depth and quality this summer, there is no reason why PNE shouldn’t push on.

Hopefully by August, Neil will be in a position to call the squad his.

The North End boss has in effect only had one-and-a-bit transfer windows to work in.

Much of last summer’s recruitment had been done prior to his arrival in July, only Stephy Mavididi and Darnell Fisher coming in after it.

Fisher was greeted coolly to start with, a freebie from relegated Rotherham.

He soon won hearts and minds, and for some fans the right-back was their player of the year.

The January window for Neil was about adding some firepower in anticipation of Jordan Hugill leaving.

In came Louis Moult and Billy Bodin, so too one for the future in Connor Simpson.

The jury is still out in the cases of Moult and Bodin, their verdict best delivered when both players have had a pre-season under Neil.

Hence this next window is an important one, Neil here from the start of it.

It goes without saying that another striker is needed, so too a couple of midfielders, even three depending on what happens with others. Another defender is likely to be on the wanted list and perhaps a winger – Neil spoke recently of not having been able to give a sufficient break to Tom Barkhuizen due to there being no like-for-like replacement.

Finally, congratulations to Bamber Bridge on being promoted from the NPL First Division North last week thanks to a 1-0 victory over Prescot in the play-off final.

A friendly and engaging club, Brig have built steadily to reach this point and to have had a crowd of more than 1,600 for the final was testament to their progress.

Neil Reynolds’ belief in his side never waned – right from the word go this season he had backed them to go out and win promotion.

Nor did his club blazer and tie come off during the season, how Renno survived last weekend’s heatwave is anyone’s guess!