Dave Seddon's Preston North End Press View: Paul Huntington closes a remarkable chapter at Deepdale

He’s magic you know…...

By Dave Seddon
Friday, 6th May 2022, 4:45 pm

So says the tune Preston North End fans sing about Paul Huntington, their Cumbrian Cannavaro – the black boot-wearing stalwart who this weekend will bid farewell at Deepdale.

After 10 years a Lilywhites player, Huntington is heading for pastures new and closing a remarkable chapter.

He will leave as a club legend, a Wembley hero, a member of the PNE 300 club. He will leave with the sound of the faithful singing his name, a thank-you for the decade’s service given to the cause.

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Preston North End defender Paul Huntington

Minutes on the pitch have lessened this past year or so but what has not lessened is the respect Huntington is held in.

Hence why it was made known well before the season’s finale against Middlesbrough that the game would be his farewell, a chance for proper goodbyes to be said.

Huntington couldn’t be allowed to slip away with no fanfare and fuss, even though he’s not a person to court the limelight.

Fingers crossed, he gets on the pitch at some stage against Boro, give those old school black boots a last competitive run over the turf at the home of football before taking them elsewhere in 2022/23.

Paul Huntington scores for Preston North End against Swindon at Wembley

That Huntington’s PNE swansong should come in such circumstances and after such longevity is remarkable.

There were times when he had to battle to survive, when he was completely out of the first-team picture and seemingly poised to go elsewhere.

Graham Westley, the manager who signed him, left him out of the side for a time.

From January 2014 through to October that year, Huntington played a grand total of six minutes of league football under Simon Grayson.

Back of the net - Paul Huntington scores for PNE at Wembley

I recall a conversation with him during that spell, it was at Blackburn Rovers’ Brockhall training ground after a Lancashire Cup game – a run-out to keep the legs sharp.

There was no moaning from Huntington, just the determination of a seasoned professional to keep working hard in the belief things would get better.

A turning point was Gillingham away on a windy autumn Tuesday night, injuries in the back four seeing a recall for Huntington.

He headed the winner at Priestfield and stayed in the team from that point on.

The season ended with Huntington scoring at Wembley in the League One play-off final and being voted PNE’s player of the year.

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Grayson used him regularly in the first season back in the Championship, so too for much of the second campaign.

In came Alex Neil and played Huntington 46 times in his first term in office.

The next couple of seasons Neil played him less but there was a resurgence in 2020/21 when the defender featured in 24 games.

At Birmingham City’s St Andrew’s ground on a filthy January night when it howled a gale, snowed, sleeted and rained, Huntington pulled on the PNE shirt for the 300th time.

They were ideal conditions for him, it requiring a no-thrills performance full of grit and determination to help his side win the game 1-0.

The poor guy nearly froze to death afterwards doing post-match interviews in an opening underneath the main stand which offered little shelter against the elements but he understood the importance of the milestone he’d just reached.

Only 26 players have to date played 300 games or more for North End, Daniel Johnson the next in line to.

In an era when players move clubs fairly frequently, you wonder just how many more will join Huntington in that exclusive club.

His last first-team game was March 13 last year at Wycombe, that being game No.305. Deepdale will be willing him on to the pitch for a 306th and final appearance at some stage against Middlesbrough.

It won’t be quite goodbye this weekend, with North End looking to double-up one of their pre-season friendlies as a testimonial game for Huntington.

A measure of the man is that he’s had to have his arm twisted a little to agree to that. Should he have new employers by then, it will be a case of getting their permission to play in the game for a short time.

Huntington won’t be the only player departing PNE this summer, with several set to have ‘released’ next to their names on the retained list.

Space needs to be created in the dressing room and on the wage bill for some significant recruitment work to be done.

This summer is an opportunity for a reboot, to freshen the squad up in a bid to push North End beyond their standard mid-table finish.

Stability is good but at some stage this club needs to rise up the table and make a proper challenge for the play-offs.

It’s a tough ask, competing against teams whose landing after falling from the Premier League is softened by parachute payments, but it can be done as other clubs have proven.

The nearest PNE have come to the play-offs since regaining their Championship status in 2015 was three years later at the end of Neil’s first season in charge.

Neil pointed out then that it needed lots of things coming together to make such a challenge – several players finding peak form at the same time and steering clear of major injuries being two of them.

Back to Huntington, I’m sure he will get the send-off he deserves against Boro. Could it be a real fairy tale and he scores with his final touch, just like Graham Alexander did 10 years ago?

Now that would be something a bit special! Good luck Hunts.