Alex Neil reveals free-scoring Preston North End’s secret weapon

Right-back Joe Rafferty has settled into the left-back role this season
Right-back Joe Rafferty has settled into the left-back role this season

Preston’s impressive scoring record has fired them into contention at the top of the Championship and Alex Neil says that has been helped by a development in their play further back on the pitch.

The Lilywhites will resume action at Derby on Saturday as the division’s leading scorers with 31 goals from 16 games.

Twelve PNE players have scored in league action, with the goals very much spread around the squad.

Key to getting North End higher up the pitch has been the position of the full-backs, helped by taking better care of the ball in midfield says Neil.

Joe Rafferty and Darnell Fisher have, in the main, filled the full-back roles, Rafferty looking comfortable in the left-back berth despite being a right-back by trade.

North End manager Neil said: “We have looked to get the full-backs higher, made them more aggressive.

“The key to that then being effective is having good retention of the ball.

“If your full-backs are advanced and you lose the ball, you are going to get countered down the sides.

“Our retention of the ball in the middle of the pitch has improved significantly.

“That allows us to be more aggressive in that sense.

“It’s part of your game which you need to develop over time.

“I tried to do it at the start of last season and you saw how that went.

“We struggled for results so I had to rein them back in.

“So we had to build back into this season and we have done that.

“For us to develop as a team, we needed to be able to get to that next stage.

“Thankfully we have been able to do that and it is another string to our bow.”

Saturday’s visit to Derby, which will see Preston backed by their biggest away following of the season to date, is the first of 10 games to be played in little more than a month.

Neil is hoping to have the majority of his squad available for the busy schedule.

He definitely gets Ben Pearson back for the trip to Pride Park, the midfielder having missed the 3-1 win over Huddersfield Town due to suspension.

Daniel Johnson missed that game with a foot injury, with Andrew Hughes also absent.

Josh Harrop and Tom Clarke have been out longer, Harrop for more than a month with a hamstring issue and Clarke since August because of a knee ligament injury.

Said Neil: “We should have a few back for the next batch of games.

“When you look back at the Huddersfield game, we had quite a few missing.

“If we can keep as many of the lads fit, there is no reason why we can’t keep on doing what we have been doing.”