Looking back at Alex Neil's time as Preston North End manager
Alex Neil was a man in Preston North End’s sights the moment Simon Grayson left for Sunderland the day pre-season training started in June 2017.
As applications landed on the doormat at Deepdale, PNE were already checking out the availability of the young Scot.
On his CV, Neil could boast two promotions to the top flight – in Scotland with Hamilton Academical and taking Norwich City to the Premier League.
Neil quickly set to work at Deepdale and the squad he had in the main inherited were soon playing football in the manner he wanted.
That first season was Neil’s best at North End, both in terms of final position and the football served-up.
It was high-pressing, high octane stuff, one of the games which sticks in the memory being a 3-1 win at Birmingham.
They went toe-to-toe with big-spending Fulham and Wolves – PNE moments away from beating the Cottagers, while they ran Wolves close at Molineux.
There was a bump in the road in late autumn as injuries struck – under Neil it seemed commonplace that several would come at once.
In the second-half of the season, Preston bounced back well and were to finish seventh, just two points shy of the play-offs. It was the club’s best finish since 2009.
Part way through the season Jordan Hugill had been sold to West Ham for £9.5m , the first of several big sales which Neil had to watch happen.
Greg Cunningham went in the summer of 2018, Callum Robinson a year later, more recently Ben Pearson and Ben Davies.
They were all players Neil had helped develop and push on, Davies seemingly on his way out of the club after a succession of loan moves until Neil brought him into the first-team squad.
After a poor start to the 2018/19 season, North End recovered by putting together two decent length unbeaten runs.
The second of those carried them to within goal difference of the top-six only for them to drop away horribly in the last eight games of the season.
West Bromwich Albion came sniffing for him in April 2019, as did Stoke later that year. Both times he stayed in a bid to see the job through at Deepdale.
The day after Stoke tried to lure Neil away, PNE went top of the Championship for the only time under him.
When the season halted due to Covid-19, Neil’s men were very much in play-off contention.
But mirroring the end of the 2018/19 season, North End fell away once again when football restarted.
They’ve never really recovered from that, this campaign riddled with inconsistency.
Neil grew more and more frustrated. After two quiet transfer windows, he looked forward to January being one to refresh the squad.
It was more than a refresh, it was an overhaul, eight in and eight out – the loss of Pearson, Davies and Darnell Fisher – being body blows to Neil.
He’d been taking punches ever since, finally hitting the canvas on Sunday in the wake of defeat to Luton.
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