Dave Seddon's PNE Press View: Guessing game's nearly over

Next week it is back to the proper stuff, the start of the season with the month of August just a few days old.

Saturday, 28th July 2018, 11:00 am
Josh Harrop (right) was impressive against Burnley on Monday

Farewell to pre-season which I find enjoyable in a strange kind of way but at the same time I’m yearning for the real football to come out.

Pre-season’s end means no more mass substitutions, no wrong numbers on the back of shirts, the ‘Trialist’ family saying goodbye until the same time next year.

For Preston it has been a good pre-season to date, with just the visit to Oldham left to negotiate – plus next week’s sharpening-up on the training pitch.

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The friendlies have been of a good standard with the squad getting plenty out of them from both a fitness and playing point of view.

Now the guessing game starts as to who Alex Neil picks in his starting XI for the season’s opener against Queens Park Rangers.

Neil spoke after both the West Ham and Burnley games about how difficult it would be to select a team, a problem he loves having.

He has got pretty much a full squad to select from, the majority of whom have done well over the last few weeks.

The strength of the squad runs deeper than it did this time last year – something Neil has stressed a few times now – and he still has some shopping to do it seems.

Yes, Greg Cunningham went during the summer and a Jordan Hugill replacement is still to arrive.

But Andrew Hughes has done well in the friendlies and Josh Earl’s promise was there to see last season when he stood in for Cunningham.

Neil too seems bullish about the chance of landing a striker before the August 9 transfer deadline.

With North End’s squad as it presently is, who will start against QPR?

That is Neil’s choice but we will all have our ideas as to who should play.

Some places seem nailed down in the starting XI – Ben Pearson, Paul Huntington, Darnell Fisher, Alan Browe and Sean Maguire are five I would suggest.

Callum Robinson, Tom Barkhuizen and Ben Davies are probably close to certain picks.

For me, the really tough choices come between the posts, at left-back and in the attacking support line.

Chris Maxwell or Declan Rudd in goal? There is little to choose between them.

They both played last term, Maxwell exclusively to January and then Rudd.

There was that in-out spell around Easter when they were alternated before Rudd finished the season.

Left-back? It might be that Hughes has just edged ahead of Earl based on what we have seen in pre-season.

Earl missed two games against AFC Fylde and Cobh Ramblers due to injury and maybe that opened things up for Hughes.

So a back four of Fisher, Huntington, Davies and Hughes?

That would be harsh on skipper Tom Clarke, while Jordan Storey is in the mix too.

It was Huntington and Clarke who played the final five games of last season from which North End took 13 out of a possible 15 points.

Huntington and Davies give the right foot/left foot balance though.

Further up the pitch, who plays next to Pearson in the ‘No.8’ role if we are to go all continental in our position terminology?

Does Neil go for Browne there or keep the Irishman as a No.10 – the role which he thrived in for much of last term.

If he wants Browne in the advanced role, the North End boss has got Paul Gallagher to play next to Pearson in the middle or Daniel Johnson.

Ryan Ledson is another option, although the fact he is similar to Pearson might lend a partnership more to an away game or one where some strong control of the midfield is needed.

Should Browne drop into the deeper role, as he did in the final stages of last term, it opens up the No.10 spot.

Josh Harrop finished last season there and I’ve got to say he played well against Burnley on Monday night.

New boy Graham Burke can play there too and has an eye for goal.

Burke is an option to play wide too, and he operated from the right in the Burnley game.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Neil goes for Robinson and Barkhuizen wide –that’s as long as Barkhuizen is fit after injury.

Daryl Horgan is another shout, a player who has done well in pre-season after not having the best of times in the last campaign.

We can of course discount Billy Bodin for next Saturday due to suspension, a legacy of his red card against Burton.

But his performances this summer must have given Neil food for thought beyond the first weekend – the touch and control for his equaliser against the Hammers a joy to watch.

Up front, Maguire seems a certain starter and much will be expected from him after 10 goals in an interrupted season last time.

It is Neil’s choice which matters but these musings show what is available to him with the season a week away.

The team which starts a season rarely finishes it so whoever has to watch the QPR game from the bench or stand, should not despair.

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves – it’s Oldham away first in a heatwave.