Joe Rafferty's left turn at Preston North End has been a big bonus this season
A big bonus for Preston North End this season has been Joe Rafferty’s ability not only to fill in at left-back but do a damn good job there.
The loss of Andrew Hughes after just two games of the campaign to injury had the potential to hit the Lilywhites hard.
After all Hughes is the only senior natural left-back in the squad with Josh Earl out on loan at Bolton – and unluckily injured minutes into his debut there.
Rafferty came to North End as a right-back but was shifted across the pitch to fill the vacancy on the left.
Two months on from that switch, no eyebrows are raised when they see the former Rochdale man on the team sheet at left-back.
He has played there eight times in the Championship and started two League Cup games there too.
“I’m happy with my form, it’s a case of working hard and keeping going,” Rafferty told the Lancashire Post.
“Just because I’ve been doing well doesn’t mean I can take my foot off the pedal.
“With how the manager picks the team by choosing the players who he thinks will be best suited to face the opposition, you need to stay on your toes and impress him as much as you can.
“I’m getting more used to playing at left-back with every game. You tend to find yourself picking-up something each time you play.
“What the manager does is keep passing me information about what he wants in terms of positioning and using the ball.
“Now that I’m in the team I want to give myself the best possible chance of staying in it longer term. So far I have taken my chance and it’s up to me to keep doing that.”
It was back in August when Rafferty’s chance came.Hughes was injured in the last seconds of the 3-0 win over Wigan at Deepdale.
He chose to sprint on an overlapping run – somewhat unnecessarily as his manager Alex Neil has stressed since – with the game long won.
His hamstring went, and with Earl having gone on loan the week before, the call came for Rafferty.
He got a try-out in the League Cup win at Bradford and did enough to start at Swansea five days later.
What helped settle Rafferty in was his first PNE goal just 11 minutes in against the Swans.
The 26-year-old had not looked back since. He had more than held his own that side of the pitch, even having Bernardo Silva for company on his side of the pitch when PNE met Manchester City.
Hughes returned for the 1-0 win at Birmingham City last month, but while his hamstring stood-up to that test, he hurt his hip flexor and back he went to the care of the physio.
Back came Rafferty and when Hughes returns again, Neil will have a tough time choosing between them.
That is likely to be next weekend at Reading when action resumes following the international break, with Hughes having come through a bounce game last week against Accrington Stanley at Springfields.
PNE will resume in third place and looking to extend an eight-game unbeaten run in the Championship.
Rafferty said: “We are all obviously pleased with how things are going at the moment.
“Third in the league and two points off the top isn’t too bad is it?
“We can’t rely on what we have done and hope that carries is along, we have to go into the next group of games looking to do even better and work even harder than we have been doing.
“It was nice to finish off before the international break with the 5-1 win over Barnsley.
“We played well that day and the only thing we were disappointed with was the fact we came in at half-time drawing 1-1.
“We all knew we should have been winning because we’d created some great chances.
“Scoring early on in the second half helped us and we kicked-on from there.
“The goals we scored were fantastic and a result like that is something we had been threatening to do for a while.
“Although we have been playing well and getting the results, I think the break has come at the right time.
“The last month was very intense, we had a couple of midweek games which makes the turnaround quite a short one.
“It’s nice every now and then to have a weekend off and get a rest.
“There’s no need to go out and do anything mad, it’s just a case of recovering and being fresh for this week’s training leading up to the Reading game.
“I enjoy putting my feet up, watching a match on the television. You don’t get chance to do on a Saturday normally but you can when it’s an international break.”
It is nine months since Rafferty made the move to Deepdale from Rochdale. He had to be patient for his first-team chance, that only coming in April.
Things have moved up a few gears since then, much to his delight.
“I would say I am a better player now than when I first arrived,” said Rafferty who turned 26 last week.
“The time has flown by since I signed, it’s too far off a year since I came here.
“In that time the gaffer has been great with me, worked with me to improve on certain things.
“At the moment I’m in the team and learning lots from that.”