Josh Earl relishing every second after rapid rise to Preston first team

First-year professionals usually follow a similar path after progressing through a youth set-up.

Probably some time out on loan in the lower leagues, likely a taste of being in and around the first team and then bank it all as experience before trying to secure a longer stay at their particular club.

Josh Earl in the thick of the action after coming on as an early substitute against Ipswich last time out

Josh Earl in the thick of the action after coming on as an early substitute against Ipswich last time out

Not Josh Earl. To say the teenager from Southport has made a breakthrough at Deepdale would be an understatement.

After being the surprise choice to fill in for the injured Greg Cunningham against Reading back in August the 19-year-old has not looked back.

Only a knee injury threatened to halt his progress but Earl has returned to action in fine fettle, his introduction as an early replacement in the defeat to Ipswich last time out being the 17th appearance of his maiden Championship campaign.

“It’s come as a real shock to me this season but I’ve enjoyed every second of it,” the left-back said.

Earl gets the better of former PNE man Aiden McGeady in the draw with Sunderland earlier in the season.

Earl gets the better of former PNE man Aiden McGeady in the draw with Sunderland earlier in the season.

“Playing all the games I’ve played in, even being on the bench and being around the squad, it’s been great.

“I can’t thank the gaffer enough for giving me the opportunity.

“Overall I think he’s been happy with me. Everyone’s got things to improve on.

“He’s telling me things because he wants me to improve, he’s really brought me along with the lads and I’ve been really happy with how it’s gone.

The teenager from Southport has become a firm favourite with the PNE fans.

The teenager from Southport has become a firm favourite with the PNE fans.

“The lads have been great with me as well so I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Boss Alex Neil has admitted that talks had taken place with a view to Earl spending time away from Deepdale, League Two clubs understood to have been interested in a loan deal after his brief spell helping Lancaster City win the NPL First Division North title last season.

“I have surprised myself,” the converted winger said. “The step up was a big one from playing at Lancaster last year and in Under-18s football to being thrown in.

“It’s a big step up but I’m happy with how I’ve dealt with it and you enjoy it because you’re playing with a lot better players.

Earl takes on George Baldock during the FA Cup defeat at Sheffield United.

Earl takes on George Baldock during the FA Cup defeat at Sheffield United.

“I’ve played against a lot of good players too and it’s a bigger challenge and you enjoy playing against the bigger teams.

“I just never expected this to happen at the start of the season.

“After I signed my pro contract I expected to go out on loan and get a season or half a season of experience and come back and re-evaluate.

“I never expected to be anywhere near the squad because we’d just signed Kevin O’Connor and there was other competition.

“As soon as you get an opportunity you’ve just got to take it.

“But I know there’s still a long way to go.”

Earl tracks Moduo Barrow during his debut against Reading, watched by Alex Neil

Earl tracks Moduo Barrow during his debut against Reading, watched by Alex Neil

The rise may have been rapid but Earl admits there are still butterflies whenever he gets the nod to feature for PNE.

“I still get a few nerves,” he admitted.

“I was very nervous on my debut and it’s still there a bit before you go on the pitch because you still have to perform for the fans, for yourself and for your team-mates.

“There is a lot of pressure on.”

It has not all been plain sailing for Earl, a knee injury picked up the defeat at Aston Villa at the beginning of November leading to two-and-a-half months on the sidelines.

He strained his medial ligament and damaged cartilage, the latter eventually requiring surgery.

“Everyone around the club did well to keep my spirits high during my injury,” Earl said.

“I had been playing well and originally Iwas told that I was only going to be out for a week or two.

“It turned out to be two and a half months and that did set me back quite a lot.

“Mentally it was really tough.

“You wonder whether you’re going to get back in the team when you come back.

“You’ve just got to think about all the positives because it has been a positive season for me.

“I have had highs and lows but the highs have definitely outweighed the lows.”

If Earl’s emergence this season has caught many off guard, so did his latest appearance on Saturday.

The teenager and Josh Harrop were introduced in place of Calum Woods and Callum Robinson as Alex Neil changed things around after just 38 minutes of the defeat to Ipswich.

“It was a bit of a surprise but you’ve always got to be ready to come on whenever the gaffer needs you,” Earl said.

“It doesn’t happen often and I’ve never seen the gaffer do that but he wanted to change the team around.

“You’ve just got to be ready and I was happy to be involved.

“But as a team and individually we weren’t happy with our performance.

“It’s games like that which we need to start winning if we want to push to the next level.”

Attentions have quickly turned to the Gentry Day trip to Bolton Wanderers on Saturday.

Defeat last time out leaves the Lilywhites ninth and three points shy of the play-off places after other results went in their favour.

With 12 games remaining there is still plenty of time for North End to break into the top six, Earl believing that would represent a fine achievement.

“I’m really looking forward to Saturday,” he said.

“We’ve had a really good season this year.

“I think we’ve performed really well as well as having good results so we were all really disappointed with how things went on Saturday.

“We just want to put that behind us and move on to the next game and get back to playing well.

“We’ve still got 12 games left and a lot can happen with us and the teams around us.

“We’ve just got to try and get as many points as possible and hopefully that can put us in a good position.

“I don’t think at the start of the season many people thought we’d finish in the play-offs.

“The fact we’ve come so far and have now got 12 games left to push on and try and push ourselves as high up the table as we possibly can, I think the fans should be really proud and all the players should be proud of themselves.”