Dave Seddon’s PNE pressview: Greg Cunningham up there with Deepdale’s best at left back

Greg Cunningham
Greg Cunningham

Left-back is perhaps not the glamour position of a football team but my word, Preston have just lost a wonderful one after the exit of Greg Cunningham.

The Premier League lured Cunningham away from Deepdale this week, Cardiff City his new home.

His departure brought to an end three extremely good seasons for the Irishman in a North End shirt.

I would go as far as to say Cunningham is up there with the best left-back I have seen play for PNE in my 40 or so years of watching.

Again you could place him in the category of a signing who was pre-judged before he had time to put his boots on for the first time.

News of his impending arrival from Bristol City in July 2015 broke as I travelled up to Scotland to cover North End’s pre-season friendly against Motherwell.

A check of the phone at the services gave me sight of a message from a friend who asked ‘why are we signing Bristol City’s third-choice left back? No ambition’.

While unwanted by the Robins, he was seen as the man to fill the vacant No.3 shirt at Deepdale.

Cunningham turned out to be some free transfer didn’t he?

He performed ever so consistently in three years of Championship football.

It was ironic that he saved his first PNE goal for a game against Bristol City.

After sending a diving header into the net for the winner at Ashton Gate in January 2016, Cunningham set-off in the direction of the home technical area.

One former member of the Preston coaching staff recalled grabbing him for a celebratory hug which also just happened to stop him getting too close to Steve Cotterill!

Cunningham was North End’s player of the year in that first season and it was a high standard he continued to meet.

Injury hit him at the back end of the 2016/17 season and the first-half of the campaign just finished.

Against Norwich in April 2017 he was on the end of a heavy tackle which dumped him to the turf.

He got up, played on for a few minutes before having to come off – it transpired that Cunningham had broken his leg.

Last August he was just getting back up to speed when his hamstring muscle detatched from the tendon, an injury Sean Maguire was also later to suffer.

The seriousness of it was not recognised immediately.

Two days after limping off at Derby, Cunningham was strolling around the training ground seemingly without an issue.

“We were worried about you the other night Greg,” said a colleague as he walked past the Springfields press room.

“So was I,” came the reply from Cunningham.

A scan later on the same day delivered the grim news of the damaged hamstring.

Few folk would begrudge Cunningham his move to the Bluebirds.

It is the chance to play in the top-flight again at the age of 27 – he had a brief taste of it early in his career with Manchester City.

Would the chance have arisen again, bar staying with PNE and them going up next season?

Stepping-up a level can be a gamble, Jordan Hugill’s 22 minutes since signing for West Ham in January proof of that.

I would hazard a guess though, that Cunningham will be higher up the pecking order at Cardiff than Hugill is at the Hammers.

The £4m fee represents decent business when you consider he came on a free.

With Cunningham gone, it now begs the question of who replaces him?

Josh Earl is the obvious one to step in, bearing in mind he did so effectively when Cunningham was ruled out last season.

In the squad also is Kevin O’Connor but the fact he was used only sparingly by Alex Neil and then farmed out on loan for the second-half of last season doesn’t exactly bode well for the future.

So another left-back is on the shopping list, whether to compete with Earl or to back him up.

Cunningham’s are big boots to fill but someone needs to do that.

It would be good to see Earl push on and do that.

When it comes to Earl’s development, at 6ft 4in he hasn’t much more to do from a physical point of view.

It will be his game which him and Alex Neil will be looking to develop, finding the type of consistency which Cunningham showed for three seasons.

If Earl can develop and build on what we saw from him last season, the future is bright for the 19-year-old.

Cunningham leaving for Cardiff was just one part of a busy last three weeks at North End, it coupled with new signings and contract renewals.

Graham Burke signed on the dotted line a few hours after Cunningham had left the building for the last time.

It maintained the Irish quota at Deepdale, with Burke the sixth first-team signing from the League of Ireland in the last four years.

Alan Browne was the trailblazer in 2014, signed from Cork City’s Under-19s.

It has been in the last 18 months that the shopping trips sover the water have stepped-up.

Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle were followed by Sean Maguire and O’Connor – two by two they came across the Irish Sea to Lancashire.

Burke comes alone from Shamrock Rovers but like Maguire, this is his second crack of the whip in English football.

You would say that PNE have had mixed fortunes with their recruitment in Ireland.

Browne and Maguire have been the stand-outs and there is more to come from the pair you would think.

The jury is still out with Horgan who started well but then struggled to make an impact last season.

Boyle and O’Connor have struggled to get a look in and spent the second-half of last season on loan at Doncaster and Fleetwood respectively.

Burke comes with plenty to prove but also carrying a decent scoring record over the last couple of seasons.

It is a step-up but let’s hope he ends up being in the bargain singing category.