Royal flush for PNE defence

Calum Woods is back fit after a hamstring strain
Calum Woods is back fit after a hamstring strain
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Simon Grayson will have a full quota of defenders to choose from when Preston North End return to Deepdale to face Reading on Saturday.

Bailey Wright has served a two-match suspension for his red card against Blackburn and is available for selection.

Calum Woods was back in the squad as an unused substitute at Burnley last week, having missed the Fulham game with a tight hamstring.

For the 2-0 victory over the Clarets at Turf Moor and the 1-1 draw at Fulham, PNE boss Grayson went with Tom Clarke, Paul Huntington and Greg Cunningham at the back.

Marnick Vermijl and Adam Reach were the wing-backs in a 3-5-2 system.

For Reading’s visit, Grayson will have to decide whether to stick with the back line which performed so well in the last two games or juggle things about to accommodate Wright’s return.

This is the first time for quite a while that all the defenders have been available.

Clarke missed five games with a shoulder injury, returning as a substitute against Blackburn.

A hamstring strain had kept Huntington sidelined for more than a month, and he had to be eased back into action from the bench.

His first start after the injury came at Queens Park Rangers on November 7 – a game PNE were without Cunningham for because of a slight thigh strain.

Against Blackburn, they lost Woods at half-time and then the dismissal of Wright later in the game saw him miss the Fulham and Burnley trips.

After the side performed so well at Turf Moor, it is unlikely that Grayson will be tempted to change things.

That saw North End keep their seventh clean sheet in the last nine games.

They have the joint-fourth best defensive record in the Championship – they and Brighton have conceded 16 goals in 19 matches.

Only Derby, Middlesbrough and Hull have let in less.

Centre-back Huntington felt the latest shut-out against Burnley was a job well done.

They snuffed out Clarets front two Andre Gray and Sam Vokes, helped by a fine first-half save from Jordan Pickford, which denied Vokes.

“It was a good performance last week, a big effort went into winning,” Huntington told the Evening Post.

“Jordan made that fantastic save in the first half but other than that, we limited their chances on target.

“We grew into the game and our performance deserved that result.

“Burnley is not an easy place to go and we were proud to get the victory.

“Defending is something we know we are good at, we are hard to break down and have made ourselves hard to beat.

“We were just pleased that we got a couple of goals to give us the win.”

At the other end of the pitch, Grayson will be looking for more goals – North End’s last four games at Deepdale have produced only two.

Will Keane’s return to the starting XI last week saw him score his first league goal in Preston colours.

He got the nod ahead of Eoin Doyle, who had started the previous seven games.

Keane can expect another start next to Joe Garner, who scored in successive matches against Blackburn and Fulham.

Saturday’s game is the first of two on the spin at Deepdale, with Birmingham visiting next Tuesday night.