The perfect match for PNE centre-half

Paul Huntington with the PNE player of the year award
Paul Huntington with the PNE player of the year award
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Seven months ago the odds of Paul Huntington scoring at Wembley and lifting Preston North End’s player of the year award, would have been off the scale.

He did not kick a ball in the first team until October 21 but went on to be a lynchpin in PNE’s promotion push, which ended in glory on Sunday.

A few hours later after a very lively bus journey home from London and an early-hours celebration in the city centre, Huntington had the player of the year trophy in his hands.

That was in addition to the award he had been presented with pre-Wembley by the Preston Supporters’ Group, their members having voted the centre-half as their best performer this term.

Sunday’s 4-0 demolition of Swindon in the League One play-off final was Huntington’s 47th appearance of the season.

The 27-year-old scored the second goal of the afternoon, taking his tally for the term to an impressive nine.

To complete a memorable few months, Huntington has his very own match of the day on Saturday, when he marries his fiancée Lindsey.

His pride at winning promotion on the biggest stage and being voted player of the year, clearly shines through.

“It has been an incredible few days. Wembley was such a magnificent occasion and then to get the award topped things off so well,” Huntington told the Evening Post.

“To bounce back from what happened at Colchester and put the play-off hoodoo to bed was brilliant.

“To be honest, we were sick of hearing about the hoodoo –the only time some of the lads had been involved in the play-offs with Preston had been the year before.

“We deserved to go up over the course of the season and I think we showed at Wembley what a good side we are.

“As a team we performed on the biggest stage and won 
very deservedly. From a personal point of view, scoring in the final was such a great feeling.

“John Dreyer had been on at me that I hadn’t got one for a while and he mentioned it in the dressing room beforehand.

“He said that if I went and attacked the ball like I meant it, Swindon looked vulnerable at set-pieces.

“They had been vulnerable at Deepdale when we played them last month.”

Huntington hailed PNE’s strength of character in getting through the play-offs in the manner they did to book their return to the Championship.

Weaker squads would have folded after the heartache of the final-day defeat at Colchester which cost them automatic promotion.

So to hit back with three victories, during which they scored eight goals and conceded none, was impressive to say the least.

Said Huntington: “We really stuck together as a group.

“When you look at it, we only lost once in 22 games which is basically half a season.

“Unfortunately that defeat came at Colchester.

“They had so much to play for and you are not just going to walk any game.

“In every game you play, the other team is going to put up a fight regardless of where they are in the league.

“The trip home that day from Colchester was a real low point in my career and a few tears were shed.

“But the manager stood up on the coach on the way back to the airport and gave us a pep talk.

“We re-grouped and did what we did in the play-offs.

“To win in the way we did in the first leg at Chesterfield was key to what we did.

“It was only a few days after Colchester but we went there, scored early and defended superbly.

“We were always confident of winning the second leg – it was that first leg when we had to dig deep.”

Huntington’s renaissance at Preston is something he takes great pride in.

Last summer, he had the opportunity to move to Port Vale as a part of the deal which brought Jordan Hugill to Deepdale.

He turned that down, as he did a handful of other offers to take him on loan once the season had kicked off.

For the opening two months of the season, Huntington survived on a meagre diet of Johnstone’s Paint Trophy ties and bounce matches.

His first-team recall came at Gillingham, a game in which he headed the winner.

“I kept my head down 
and worked hard when I 
wasn’t in the team,” said Huntington.

“I have my own pride in my fitness levels and thankfully I was able to get back into the first-team frame.

“To finish the season in the way we have is magnificent, it means so much.

“Apart from a player of the month award once, I had not won anything until Sunday.”

Huntington was not the only player collecting awards as the North End squad gathered at Deepdale earlier in the week to celebrate promotion.

Paul Gallagher collected the players’ player of the year gong, an accolade always highly valued within the game.

Kevin Davies was presented with the community player of the year award, in particular for his work in the ‘Shining Star’ campaign which PNE ran at Christmas.

Goal of the season went to Joe Garner for his chip from the edge of the box against Port Vale in October’s JPT match.