Craig Salmon’s Preston North End Press View: Lilywhites should dare to dream of Premier League
Looking to upset the big guns in the division – the clubs with the most resources and biggest budgets – Alex Neil’s men have certainly ruffled a few feathers over the past couple of seasons.
Serious play-off contenders during the 2017/18 campaign, PNE finished just a couple of points shy of the top six.
Last season was not quite as successful, but they still flirted seriously with the play-offs at one point – remarkably so considering the disappointing opening to the campaign.
However, once the final whistle sounded on each of the last two campaigns, North End’s fans probably set off back down Sir Tom Finney Way, shrugged their shoulders and possibly said, ‘Aye well that’s our lot... another season of Championship football it is then’.
But there is a perception within football that it would take a remarkable achievement for North End to grab one of the three promotion places on offer.
No doubt about it, it would be an amazing achievement – as any promotion is.
But I think it’s time people started to look at North End as equal to anything the Championship has to offer.
Okay, they may not have the spending power of some clubs, who benefit from Premier League parachute payments or benefactors with limitless funds – but player for player, PNE have some serious – and young – talent at their disposal.
You look at Wednesday’s opponents Stoke City – who are still, without doubt, benefitting from the several years they spent in the top flight.
They have been able to fork out huge sums of money – transfer fees that Preston can only dream about – to bring in new players, but at Deepdale, the Potters were no match for North End as the home side ran out emphatic 3-1 victors.
On Saturday, Neil described his team’s first-half performance against Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium as the best he has seen in his two-year stint as manager.
Once again, the Welsh outfit are a club which has had Premier League longevity and the riches that brings.
But the visitors bossed proceedings, took the lead and should have been home and hosed at half-time.
Unfortunately, they conceded deep into stoppage time in the first period which handed the hosts a foothold into the game.
And they made home advantage count, by going on to win 3-2 after the second half in what was an enthralling game.
After the match, Neil, his players,the fans lamented about the points which had slipped through the net.
But invariably talk then turned to how Swansea have a squad which has been expensively assembled.
North End maybe should forget what other clubs have paid out in the past and look to how much their squad would be worth in today’s transfer market.
You only need to look at the £8m Sheffield United parted with to sign Callum Robinson in the summer – a player who arrived at Deepdale on a ‘free’ three years ago and has developed to such an extent that he is now able to command a multi-million pound transfer fee.
In Ben Pearson, North End boast one of the best midfield players outside of the Premier League – and I would hasten to add has a career ahead of him in the top flight so long as he can curb his propensity to fall foul of the match officials on a regular basis.
Daniel Johnson produced a man-of-the-match performance against Stoke and certainly illustrated just what quality he has when he has freedom to roam in the final third of the pitch.
Tom Barkhuizen’s pace and his ability to play anywhere across the front is a real asset – the same could be said of Sean Maguire. Josh Harrop and Billy Bodin look eager to make up for lost time through injury and bring their creative skills to the fore.
And centre-half Ben Davies is really showing why North End stuck by him as he made his way in the game.
You only have to look at the strength in depth – people like Alan Browne, skipper Tom Clarke and Brad Potts have had to make do with a place on the bench at various times.
What is in no doubt is that Neil will leave no stone unturned in his quest to get the best out of his squad.
The PNE boss is often fascinating to listen to when he talks tactics and is a deep thinker of the game.
Today, North End host Sheffield Wednesday – a big club at this level of course, but nothing for the hosts to be afraid of.