Preston North End’s player of the year and scorer of their goal of the season Alan Browne talks to Dave Seddon about a memorable 2017/18 campaign at Deepdale
To say the last year has been good to Alan Browne would be something of an understatement.
His first senior Republic of Ireland cap last June was just the start of it.
What was to follow on the domestic front with Preston was a player taking his game to a new level.
Browne went from zero goals in 2016/17 to nine in the campaign just finished.
One of them won him the club’s goal of the season award, a 45-yard shot over Cardiff City goalkeeper Neil Etheridge last September.
The goal of the season trophy is just one of three pieces of silverware sat on Browne’s mantelpiece.
PNE supporters voted him their player of the year, as did his peers in the North End dressing room.
Recognition then from the stands and on the pitch, so too his manager Alex Neil who has long banged the drum when it came to what Browne offered to the team.
He has even got his own song, the ‘Baluga’ tune now No.1 in the PNE supporters’ matchday repertoire. If the Church Street bar has any sense, he should never have to buy a drink again in there – Browne has spread the Baluga name the length and breadth of the country, from London to Sunderland and wherever North End have pitched up to play.
“It doesn’t get much better as a player when you hear the fans singing your name, no matter what the reason it is for,” said Browne.
“I just want to constantly improve my game and that will hopefully help the team to be successful.”
For someone who only turned 23 a month ago, Browne already had a lot of football under his belt before this season.
He came to Preston as a 17-year-old in January 2014, plucked from Cork City’s Under-19s side.
Browne made his first-team debut within a couple of months of signing, scoring his first goal in a 6-1 win over Carlisle, He played at Wembley the following season as a first-half substitute for Paul Gallagher in the 4-0 win over Swindon in the League One play-off final.
Browne was to feature heavily in PNE’s first two seasons back in the Championship.
However, 2017/18 was the campaign in which his game developed to a level which won him awards.
At one stage this season, he won four home man of the match awards on the bounce.
The prize was a voucher for a city centre jewellers which could have given him the chance to bling up.
Browne’s not that type though, coming across as a level-headed lad.
The catalyst to the Cork lad taking the strides he has done this season was Neil.
Appointed a few days into pre-season, the Scotsman spent those early weeks not only planning for the season ahead but assessing what he had available in the squad.
Neil quickly identified Browne as someone who could play further forward than the deeper midfield role we had been used to seeing him in.
“The gaffer coming in was a new start for everyone here, myself included,” said Browne.
“You really showcase your talent when someone new comes in and you just have to take your chance with both hands which I’ve tried to do.
“I feel more confident that ever at this moment in time. It’s a great feeling for me to be playing week in, week out.”
Browne started 38 of North End’s 46 league games, coming off the bench a further six times.
The only two matches he did not feature in were the 3-2 home defeat to Brentford when he suspension ruled him out – the legacy of a red card at Wolves.
Then he was an unused substitute in the New Year’s Day loss to Middlesbrough.
Browne is among a group of young players – mid 20s and below – who make up the core of the North End squad.
Keep that core together and there is every chance the team can better this season’s seventh-place finish in the Championship.
Said Browne: “You look around the dressing room and there’s a lot of youth and enthusiasm.
“But equally there’s a lot of experience. I think I’m one of the more experienced of the young lads but there’s a lot in there.
“Callum Robinson, DJ, Tom Barkhuizen is still young, Ben Pearson and Darnell Fisher.
“They are young but they are experienced and they play with their heads more than anything.
“That’s why the gaffer can rely on them and he’s not afraid to play young players.
“It’s worked out well for us this season but I think we can improve even more.”
Browne will not be resting on the laurels of this season when he comes back after the summer.
For the time being though, the midfielder is enjoying reflecting on a good campaign.
Said Browne: “It has been fantastic for me, I think I have really improved my game overall.
“For me personally, it has been my best season since I came here, one I will look to improve on again.
“I think I can only get better under this gaffer and the coaches here, they have been excellent all year.
“They have constantly pushed everyone of us, you can see throughout the squad that there has been a massive improvement.
“We just have little bits that we need to narrow down and focus on.
“Next year we will come back stronger.
“ I think we can really improve, by that I don’t mean just the play-offs I mean compete for the league itself.
“We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves just because we’ve finished seventh, just outside the play-offs. I know it’s a big ask to compete for the automatic spots but at this moment in time I think we’re definitely more than capable of doing it.
“There’s no point in shying away from speaking about it because that’s where we’re up to at the moment and that’s where we want to be.”
This season is actually not yet over for Browne.
While he has been able to squeeze in a few days of rest and relaxation since the win over Burton, international duty beckons.
The Republic of Ireland face Celtic next Sunday in a testimonial for Scott Brown, then have friendly internationals with France and the United States.
He will be hoping to add to his two caps – the first of which came against Mexico in New Jersey nearly 12 months ago, the second more recently when the Irish played Turkey.
Browne said: “It will be nice to get a break but first there are games with my international team in the summer, which I’m looking forward to.
“I’ll have had a bit of a rest before joining up with them and after those games there will be a few more weeks for a holiday.”
Company from Preston colleagues will be in plentiful supply when he meets up with his country.
Greg Cunningham, Daryl Horgan, Sean Maguire and Callum Robinson will be with him.
Robinson has pledged his allegiance to the Emerald Isle despite having played up to Under-20s level with England.
Maguire, like Browne, has two senior caps, while Horgan has featured three times for his country.
Cunningham has four caps, the last of those in 2013.
The left-back has been particularly unfortunate on the international front, when injury has ruled him out of the last three squads.