Huntington ready for competition as players return from injury

It has certainly been a case of feast or famine for Preston North End at the back this season.

Thursday, 7th December 2017, 6:00 pm

Having slipped to four straight defeats as their defensive resources were stretched to their fullest, Alex Neil’s men are back on the up as players return from injury.

There was no greater sign of that than Tom Clarke wearing the captain’s armband on his first start of the season against Queens Park Rangers on Saturday.

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Paul Huntington battles with Gary Madine during the draw with Bolton at Deepdale.

The returning skipper was replaced at the interval as PNE went on the offensive, demonstrating what Neil can do when players are back fit.

Long-time wearer of the armband this season Paul Huntington acknowledges his place will now be under more scrutiny but insists that is the way it should be if North End have aspirations of improving on 10th in the Championship.

“It was great to be playing alongside Tom again,” said the 30-year-old, hoping to keep his place for Saturday’s trip to Burton Albion.

“It’s been a long time, since Huddersfield when he got injured a good seven months ago.

Paul Huntington celebrates with Tom Barkhuizen after the winger poked home his header at Norwich.

“It’s great to see him back and great for him – it’s been a long road back.

“I think his fitness will improve the more he trains and the more game time he gets and it will be a real positive for us going forwards.

“We changed it at half-time to go more attacking and Kevin O’Connor came in at left-back.

“You expect competition for places at Championship clubs, it should be like that every season.

Paul Huntington has led the side with aplomb but is set to hand the armband back to Tom Clarke.

“It’s just up to ourselves to work hard and the manager’s got decisions to make for each game and each opposition, when it comes to how we’re going to set up and how we’re going to go about it. That will change whoever the opposition is.

“It was very much a team to play QPR and it will be a different mind-set heading into this weekend.”

Clarke’s return saw Huntington take a step back when it came to leading the side.

Greg Cunningham had been named as stand-in captain in Clarke’s absence but his own serious hamstring meant it was left to PNE’s ‘Cumbrian Cannavaro’ to step up at the heart of the defence.

Paul Huntington battles with Gary Madine during the draw with Bolton at Deepdale.

“It’s been a privilege, it’s been great,” said the former Newcastle and Leeds man.

“Obviously the circumstances aren’t ideal with Greg and Tom but it’s been a case of needs must.

“I’ve been proud to wear it.

“All players do it in different ways but whenever needed, it’s a great thing to be asked to do.”

Huntington ended the night as skipper as PNE made it four unbeaten since the international break with a 1-0 triumph over 10-man QPR last time out, Jordan Hugill striking in the 88th minute.

Jamie Mackie may have seen red for a challenge on Clarke midway through the first half but it was far from straightforward.

Paul Huntington celebrates with Tom Barkhuizen after the winger poked home his header at Norwich.

“It wasn’t the easiest of games last Saturday, especially after the sending off and the way they set up,” said Huntington.

“Every team in this league is organised and know what they are doing.

“They were never going to lie down and make it easy for us.

“Some decisions went in their favour and you’re thinking, ‘Is it going to be our day?’.

“But we were patient, we kept going, didn’t get too frustrated and got there in the end.”

The game also brought about a welcome clean sheet as Neil’s defence returns to something like the early-season form that saw Preston concede just one goal in their opening five Championship games.

“The clean sheet was obviously pleasing, there was more emphasis on the attacking side and keeping the back door shut,” Huntington said.

“I’m just pleased that we’ve had a couple of bodies back in recent weeks.

“The back four’s been chopped and changed so much and players coming back is a big help to us.

“It’s no coincidence that Darnell Fisher and Ben Davies came back at Bristol City and we looked like our normal selves.

“We should have more coming back in the next few weeks and that will only make us stronger.”

It all provides the perfect foundation for PNE to climb towards the sharp end of the division.

The trip to the Pirelli Stadium is part of the always crucial run of games up until the hectic festive period.

“We’re on a decent run and are just looking to carry that on,” said Huntington.

“There’s now another tough batch of games coming up in the run-up to Christmas and we need to keep the points tally ticking over.

“There are a lot games to be played.

“We’ve played 20 now and we’re starting to get a feel of where people are at.

“I looked at the table after Saturday, as most players and fans probably do after a decent result.

“It’s a very tough league, though.

“It looks like teams might be getting away and then teams in lower positions will beat them and that’s very much the division.”

Burton might just be the perfect example of that.

Bottom of the table ahead of North End’s trip to Staffordshire, Nigel Clough has done an excellent job in ensuring they continue to punch above their weight. It may be a hard slog for the Brewers to maintain their Championship status but Huntington is taking nothing for granted.

“They did really well last year,” he said.

“You know what type of game it’s going to be, they are fighting for points.

“It’s a tight ground, it will be physical, they play a certain formation and are good at what they do.

“They get the ball forward and like to make it a scrappy game but we’ll be ready for that.

“Last year we had two games in three days and the second one was there.

“It wasn’t a pretty game, it wasn’t a great spectacle.

“As a defender we were just pleased to win the game 1-0.

“We’re doing a lot of work on the training ground building up to this game.

“We’ll go into it full of confidence but know that it will be a tough game.

“Every team in this league is a stern test but it’s one we’re looking forward to.”

Paul Huntington has led the side with aplomb but is set to hand the armband back to Tom Clarke.