Dave Seddon’s Preston North End Press View: Still work to do on squad
Preston North End’s squad for the first half of the 2021/22 season is nearly formed but not quite.
The transfer deadline has been and gone but still there are a couple of pieces to put in the Deepdale jigsaw.
That is in the shape of free agents still being looked at and there being a handful of PNE players being in no-man’s-land with regards to a squad place.
The window shut with North End having Connor Wickham as a daily guest at their Euxton training ground.
He has now trained with Frankie McAvoy’s squad for more than three weeks and played in the reserves.
Although Wickham might be the only player on trial, the hint from North End on Thursday was that the free agent market was being looked at in general.
For that reason, the squad registered with the EFL had not yet been fully stocked with 25 players – 23 are in it for the time being.
Wickham could get one of those vacancies, maybe it will be another free agent, or it could be one or more of those currently registered who get the nod.
McAvoy used the word ‘flexible’ when it came to North End holding back on registering a full 25 players.
They’ve allowed themselves a bit of breathing space to assess Wickham, see what else might be out there and have a further think about the existing players on the books.
PNE don’t need 25 senior players for this weekend’s trip to Bristol City for example.
Longer term, McAvoy will want the full complement available, but just for now it seems a sensible approach.
Remember, they can call too on the younger lads at the club who don’t need to be registered in accordance with EFL rules.
Those senior players currently not registered in the squad are Jamie Thomas, Paul Huntington, Josh Harrop, Joe Rafferty, Connor Ripley and Izzy Brown.
I’d wager that Thomas is the biggest surprise in that list, by reason of him being a summer signing.
Fair enough, North End didn’t go and splash out on him, instead taking him on trial and awarding a contract on the back of what he did in training and in a couple of the pre-season friendlies.
Thomas could yet get one of the last two places if it is decided the attacking midfield area needs that extra body to get them through to January.
For now, though, it is a waiting game for the former Bamber Bridge man.
Rafferty could yet get the nod because he brings some versatility at the back.
It might depend on when PNE expect to get Matthew Olosunde back.
The summer signing has not kicked a ball since July 13 because of an issue with his Achilles.
In Olosunde’s absence, Rafferty has been there as cover at right wing-back.
Harrop’s future at North End doesn’t seem the brightest at the moment.
After being out on loan at Ipswich for the second half of last season, it seems that attempts were made to get him loan football elsewhere in the summer.
That didn’t transpire and an injury he’s carrying at the moment isn’t helping his cause.
Huntington is down the pecking order of the central defenders at Deepdale but you never say never with the Cumbrian Cannavaro do you?
A few times over the years it has looked rocky for him, only for him to bounce back.
The midweek reserve game was his first slice of action since last season after being ruled out of all of the pre-season friendlies.
Jordan Storey, Patrick Bauer and Andrew Hughes are the current first-choice central defenders, with Liam Lindsay on the phased return from Covid.
Sepp van den Berg sees himself primarily as a centre-half, although is doing well at the moment as a goalscoring wing-back.
Then there’s Greg Cunningham and Josh Earl who could play on the left-hand side of a three – Cunningham operated there for the reserves.
It is with that in mind that Huntington probably finds himself on the outside at the moment.
Keeper Connor Ripley not being registered isn’t a surprise, with Daniel Iversen, Declan Rudd and Mathew Hudson all ahead of him.
Summer signing Brown won’t be available for the next few months, so he wasn’t registered.
If Wickham signs on or another free agent does, that narrows it down to one place being up for grabs.
McAvoy seems pleased with the striker’s ability but is looking for Wickham to kick on with his fitness.
Tuesday afternoon’s reserve game was quite a testing one in that respect.
The warm and sticky weather made for tough conditions which was a test of everyone’s fitness, let alone Wickham who hasn’t played a first-team game since July 2020. He’s a powerful lad, there’s plenty of him, and recovering his sharpness will take time.
Having allowed Wickham to train for the length of time he has, it would be a surprise if PNE didn’t invest a bit more time in him to see if he reaches the levels needed.
Touching further on the reserve game at Euxton, I’d say PNE’s return to the Central League after nine years was a decent one.
They didn’t pull up any trees in terms of the result, a 1-1 draw against a youthful Walsall second string.
But 160 fans enjoyed a game of football and topped up the summer tan in the Euxton sunshine.
Several senior players got a run-out, Rudd as vocal in the game as he would be in the first team – Rafferty too.
As the season goes on, the reserve games are likely to see more young players involved from the start in a bid to help their development.
It’s still a platform to get game time into senior players’ legs if needed.
The reserves could yet be vital to those who don’t make the squad cut and require some semi-regular football to stay sharp.