WIDE man Chris Humphrey believes Preston can be the surprise package of the Championship this campaign.
After winning promotion from League One via the play-offs in May, North End appear to have adapted well to life back in the second tier of English football.
A well deserved 0-0 draw against promotion favourites Middlesbrough on the opening weekend was followed by a 1-0 victory at MK Dons on Saturday.
Sandwiched in between was progression to the second round of the Capital One Cup thanks to a 3-1 win over Crewe at Gresty Road.
Two wins and a draw from their opening three games means there is an air of optimism sweeping through Deepdale at the moment.
While most PNE fans will be content with a season of consolidation after four years in the wilderness, Humphrey believes there is no reason why he and his team-mates cannot set their sights higher.
“I can’t see why we can’t push on towards the top end of the table,” Humphrey said.
“At the moment the team spirit is great, the morale is really high and everybody is working really, really hard for each other.
“As long as we have got that then I don’t see why we can’t aim for more than other people are expecting of us.
“The manager has done great in keeping the squad together – signing people like Paul Gallagher and Jermaine Beckford and keeping hold of Tom Clarke and John Welsh.
“We have got some real leaders in the dressing room and then, on the other hand, we have got the young boys as well.
“You saw them against Crewe and I thought they were very good, so we have got a mixture of all sorts in there – experience and youth.”
After spending the summer away on international duty with Jamaica – helping his country reach the final of the Gold Cup – Humphrey has been playing catch-up in terms of pre-season training.
He has been doing extra sessions with Tom Little to get him up to speed with the rest of the squad.
It meant he started the season on the substitutes’ bench against Boro, coming on late in the day at right wing-back for new signing Marnick Vermijl.
He was given an extended run-out against Crewe, before being handed his first start of the season on Saturday at stadium:mk.
“I feel great now,” Humphrey said. “I have been working hard with Tom doing extra fitness work.
“It’s been horrible at times but it’s all been worth it.
“I felt great against MK Dons – the gaffer has slowly brought me back to get me match fit.
“I got 80 minutes on Saturday and I feel like I’m back to full fitness now.”
It is Humphrey’s first experience of the Championship and he is eager to prove that he belongs at this level.
“It is the first time I have played in the Championship and so far I’ve enjoyed it.
“I’ve only had taste of it so far and what I’ve found is both penalty areas are crucial in the Championship.
“Obviously, outside the box you have a little bit more time on the ball, but inside the box you need to be switched on because the players are a lot sharper.”
North End head to Yorkshire on Tuesday night to face Steve Evans’ Rotherham United, who are propping up the table at the moment after losing both their opening two games of the season
It is the first time the clubs have clashed since the League One play-off semi-final in 2014.
On that occasion, the Millers prevailed 4-2 on aggregate – winning the second leg 3-1 at the New York Stadium.
They went on to secure promotion – beating Leyton Orient in the final at Wembley.
Humphrey well remembers the pain of losing at the New York Stadium, but does not believe revenge will play a part in Preston’s thinking.
“I remember that night at Rotherham, and I think a lot of our lads from that night are still here.
“But I don’t think there will be any extra edge to the match.
“They have not had a great start, but it is only two games.
“We won’t be going there thinking that they have lost their first two games. They are still a very good Championship team.
“If they play similar to the way they played in League One, they are going to be a handful. We will treat the game properly and hopefully we can get the three points.”
Humphrey is also relishing the fight for a first-team shirt this season.
It appears he is in direct competition with loan star Vermijl for a starting berth in the team, especially if manager Simon Grayson sticks to the wing-back system.
Vermijl missed last weekend’s win over MK Dons through injury, but could be in line for a return to the squad against the Millers.
Humphrey says he is ready for the fight for a first-team spot.
“I got a start on Saturday and hopefully I can stay in the team,” he said. “But I love competition for places – it’s the only way of keeping everybody on their toes.”