Preston North End are in a similar situation to 15 years ago as contract saga drags on

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PNE captain Alan Browne is contracted until the end of the current season

As the Preston North End players trudged off the Deepdale pitch on Saturday - the sky grey and season surely done - there was a moment where captain Alan Browne put his hands to his face in despondent fashion. So much goes into these long and gruelling campaigns and, once again, the Irishman had to accept another one had likely come and gone - after game 42.

That is not to suggest this season has been a failure, by any means, for the Lilywhites - who recovered from an almighty Autumn wobble and resurrected hopes of a last gasp surge into the top six. PNE will fall short in that quest, left wondering what this campaign could’ve delivered had that torrid run of form even been just average.

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And so it’s on to the next one, this summer - as Ryan Lowe looks set to oversee his sixth transfer window ahead of a third full season in the hot seat. Improvement in the playing squad will be sought after, but there remains one glaring question mark over the future of Preston’s captain. Alan Browne confirmed his contract offer back in December; it is yet to be signed.

You cannot exactly blame Browne - who operates without an agent - for that. But North End fans have been here before and until pen is put to paper - regardless of how much the Irishman loves the club, has spoken about breaking appearance records and appears ever so settled in the area - there will be pessimism over him staying on board for season number twelve.

At the time of writing it is Browne’s 29th birthday. It seems no time ago, whatsoever, since the midfielder came on against Peterborough United as a young pup in League One. The first impression was positive but all expectations were to be exceeded. Browne has grown as a player and man at Preston, finding a home away from home and doing the armband absolute justice.

When asked, there has been calmness and confidence from the manager - and director Peter Ridsdale - that Browne will continue his journey. And perhaps a couple of numbers need ironing out, but you’d imagine negotiations would be fairly straightforward - if Browne’s mind was 100 per cent made up and PNE’s offer, to their captain, was fair and reasonable.

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So, it is at this point - with four matches left to play - that the possibility of North End’s number eight leaving has to be considered. That must be viewed as on the cards, now. It would still be a surprise, given the unique connection between club and player. But 11 years is a long time for anyone and, like with Daniel Johnson, you could understand the appeal of a change of scenery towards the back end of a short career - as well as a potentially improved contract.

Browne is an intelligent individual, who will recognise what he has at Preston and what he would be leaving behind. From a business point of view, mind, there is little risk - injury aside - to keeping the door open and seeing if someone knocks. The whole situation does have a similar feel to 2009, when North End captain Paul McKenna moved to Nottingham Forest after 470 appearances for Preston and one near-miss too many.

McKenna wasn’t out of contract, instead sold for a reported £750,000. But he was a colossal servant, over many years, to a football club which - in a similar way to Browne - felt like his in a way. McKenna, also like the Irishman, was a fierce competitor and the desire to play in the top flight never left him. It is that which ultimately lured him away to Nottingham Forest - who finished third and, rather ironically, lost in the Championship play-offs to Blackpool.

In 2019, McKenna reflected: "I think the final straw was, when we got beaten in the play-offs - I'd been there so many times before. And I just thought I wasn't going to get there with Preston; I wanted to have a go at playing in the Premier League - that is what everyone wants to do, isn't it? I was 29, so I was thinking it was kind of last chance saloon sort of thing.

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“I'd seen loads of lads go to clubs... I probably could've (kicked off) but I didn't want to leave Preston, really. I was quite happy there and I had always lived there. My family and friends were there. But, I wanted to try and play in the Premier League and I wasn't going to get that chance at Preston. Forest were having a real go at it, chucking some money at it and I knew they'd be close.”

It remains to be seen whether a Premier League club would come calling for Browne - who was the subject of late, out-of-the-blue interest from Salernitana in January. Most would, probably, guess not; his stock has likely been higher. But it’s hard to imagine the Ireland international not appealing to Championship clubs on a free transfer. Whether any are able to turn his head away from his beloved North End - time will tell. If Browne’s brain is telling him similar things to McKenna’s, 15 years ago though, then PNE may need to sell this thing to the skipper once more.

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