Adam Lord's Preston North End Press View: Half-term report
Saturday's trip to Hillsborough sees the Championship season reach its halfway point.
Preston North End’s bid to continue their excellent recent run against struggling Sheffield Wednesday will be game 23 of the 46-game campaign.
It’s fair to say it’s been something of a mixed bag.
Hopes were high after a seventh-placed finish and a near miss in a run for a play-off spot last time around.
But the start to the season was so poor that the 3-2 defeat against Sheffield United in September saw the Lilywhites slip to the foot of the table.
Fast forward three months and Alex Neil’s side head back to South Yorkshire on the back of just one defeat in their last 12 games, a run that has seen them rise to 15th in the second tier.
The win over Millwall on Saturday means PNE are now closer to the play-offs than the bottom three and very much looking up ahead of a busy Christmas and New Year schedule.
The report card so far is very much in the ‘B’ or ‘C’ range. In the opening weeks of the season, Neil’s men at times looked a world away from the solid outfit that came so close to extending their season in May.
There were errors aplenty with an alarming number of goals being leaked.
Elsewhere, key men weren’t hitting the levels that made North End such a difficult prospect to play against, Ben Davies and Alan Browne in that category by their own admission.
But increasingly, the 3-0 defeat at Birmingham aside, they look more and more like the team that Neil moulded on his arrival in the summer of 2017.
And while too many goals have been conceded, especially in those concerning opening couple of months, plenty are being scored at the other end too.
As things stand, PNE have scored the joint-fifth most goals in the division but only two teams – Millwall and Wednesday – have shipped more.
As well as the goal count, the one other constant of the campaign has been the injuries. Injuries, injuries and more injuries.
Whatever physio Matt Jackson is being paid, he probably needs a rise as he’s been the busiest man at Springfields this season.
Players have dropped like flies in both the long and short term with academy prospects Jack Baxter and Ethan Walker needed to supplement the bench in recent weeks.
Billy Bodin and Sean Maguire were sidelined in the days before the season started, with Josh Harrop soon joining the former in facing up to missing the whole season with a knee injury.
Callum Robinson has been North End’s standout player but we are now not likely to see him until the latter part of the campaign, as he is one of a number of players to pick up a hamstring problem.
Tom Clarke is currently wearing a mask to protect a broken nose and Ben Pearson has been battling through a thigh injury.
Speaking of Pearson, suspensions haven’t helped the cause, with Paul Gallagher, Chris Maxwell and Ryan Ledson all also serving three-game bans at one point or another.
With that in mind, despite the disappointment of how the opening weeks went, a glass-half-full look at the season so far would be to say that 15th isn’t the worst return at all. Neil went as far as to discuss the “top echelon” of the Championship at his press conference this week, PNE looking to close the eight-point gap to the top six over the festive period.
Even being on the fringes of the play-off race come the early part of 2019 would be some achievement given the start to the campaign.
Any push towards the sharp end of the second tier will need to be aided by a relatively busy January transfer window. There was always going to be business, PNE needing to supplement a stretched squad.
The targetman that didn’t arrive in the summer months will still likely be on the agenda, but given all the injury problems and how some issues were exposed at the beginning of the campaign, it will be interesting to see what the priorities are deemed to be in the next six weeks or so.
Given North End’s relatively modest budget, they will have to decide which issues are most pressing. Does the attack need help in other areas with the amount of injuries Neil has had to contend with in the final third?
Are PNE on the hunt for a goalkeeper? With the manager having chopped and changed between Declan Rudd and Chris Maxwell, the Lilywhites have been linked with both Burnley’s Tom Heaton and Accrington’s Middlesbrough loanee Connor Ripley in recent weeks.
Whoever does come in, Neil has talked about a “top-up” rather than an overhaul, those moves will be key to keeping North End on an upward curve in the second half of the season.
First things first, they need to make sure they enter 2019 still in fine fettle and that starts at Hillsborough.