Should we have been surprised by a strong display from Paul Huntington in Preston North End’s narrow defeat to West Bromwich Albion – after all he has ‘previous’ for bouncing back?
The central defender has enjoyed more comebacks than Frank Sinatra, he is PNE’s comeback king at the age of 32.
Huntington’s last two Championship starts were a few days short of 11 months apart.
In between was a brief run as a substitute late in April’s 3-3 draw with Sheffield Wednesday and a start in the League Cup clash with Hull early this season, a game in which he scored.
Until Monday night, Huntington had not started a league game since the 1-1 draw with Swansea City on January 12, a game he was subbed in at half-time.
The wearer of black boots was needed against Albion due to injuries to Patrick Bauer and Ben Davies, also to Tom Clarke and Andrew Hughes who are both options for the centre of defence.
Huntington was very good on the night, and did exactly what it says on the tin.
He won his battles in the air, cleared his lines, he was the Cumbrian Cannavaro we have known and admired for seven-and-a-half years.
One former PNE player sat in the press box for the West Brom game, turned to me before the end of the first half and said there was only one way his man of the match choice would be going – in Huntington’s direction.
This was not the first time Huntington had come back in from the cold, although this latest one saw him climb out of a deep freeze.
As long ago as the 2013/14 campaign, he had to play a waiting game on the sidelines. After being a regular in the team in the first half of that campaign under Simon Grayson, his last start of the season came on December 29, 2013 at Shrewsbury.
Four months later when PNE were 6-1 up against his home-town club Carlisle, Huntington came off the bench in the 84th minute for cameo appearance.
Not until October 21, 2014, did he did start a league match again.
Huntington got his chance in an away game at Gillingham on a windy Tuesday evening because of injury and illness to others.
He scored the winner, helped keep a clean sheet and never looked back.
Seven months later he scored his ninth goal of the season in the 4-0 win over Swindon in the League One play-off final at Wembley.
In PNE’s first season back in the Championship, Huntington was a regular, making 41 appearances.
But in 2016/17 Huntington started the opening game at Reading and then didn’t appear again until October in a 2-2 draw against Brighton.
He had another two-month wait for a start, which came at Bristol City.
Huntington dislodged Bailey Wright that day, who was eyeing a move to the Robins and would join them a few weeks later.
He stayed in the team for the remainder of that season and was a regular throughout Alex Neil’s first campaign in charge.
Likewise Huntington played most games in the first half of last season, a run which halted after the Swansea game in January.
A week later, Neil paired Jordan Storey with Davies at Queens Park Rangers and they stayed in situ for the remainder of the campaign.
This season, it has been Bauer and Davies in the middle, Storey only regaining his place at Hull 10 days ago.
It was Huntington’s turn this week, he and Storey only a few minutes away from being able to enjoy a clean sheet against a wealth of attacking talent.
How long their residency is back in the team remains to be seen.
Bauer and Davies are Neil’s first-choice pairing and that hasn’t changed.
What this shows is the value of strength in depth, to have Huntington ready to come in if needed is a great safety blanket to have.
It’s hard to imagine him not being at Deepdale – he is now the longest serving player at the club.
Huntington came to PNE in the summer of 2012 as part of the Graham Westley revolution, a great piece of business on a Bosman after his Yeovil contract ran out.
You sense he would be reluctant to leave even if first-team chances don’t come often.
The need for changes at the back – Huntington’s return included – has been due to a pile-up of injuries in one department.
That is something which has happened three seasons running.
It was defenders two years ago, forward players last season and now it is defenders again.
This time it is due to different injuries sustained in different circumstances, with little pattern.
Hughes has been missing with a broken bone in his foot – a contact injury to follow on from a damaged hamstring and a kick on the hip flexor.
A knee ligament issue kept Clarke on the sidelines from August until this week when he played in a bounce game.
Davies hurt his ankle at Derby, Bauer complained of sore quads after the Hull game.
With Darnell Fisher we haven’t really ascertained the nature of his injury, suffice to say he went off at half-time at Derby and hasn’t been back since.
Alan Browne returned to play as a stand-in right-back against Albion having missed the Hull game.
His problem for that one was a tight hamstring, which he wasn’t able to rest during the recent international break as he was away with the Republic of Ireland.
At the time it wasn’t enough to keep him out of action but things just tipped over between the Derby and Hull games.
Just getting a couple of them back would give the squad a stronger look.
We’ve become used to Joe Rafferty to playing at left-back when in fact he’s a right-back by trade.
Hughes returning would see him compete with Rafferty or allow ‘Rafu’ to switch over to the right.