Josh Earl in new territory again as Preston North End look to stop the rot in the Championship
It has been a year of firsts for Josh Earl.
Fast-tracked into the Preston North End first team back in August 2017, the teenager has had something of a whirlwind 12 months.
Now he is in new territory again, the left-back never having found himself in the situation the Lilywhites currently find themselves in.
Seven games without a win having not tasted victory in the Championship since the opening day against Queens Park Rangers, Alex Neil’s men head to Sheffield United on Saturday in real need of something to kickstart their campaign.
“As a player I’ve been in a rut before in the Under-18s but as part of a squad I’ve never had to go through a tough time like this,” said Earl, who started the 3-0 defeat at leaders Leeds United on Tuesday night.
“It’s a really young squad.
“We’ve all got to find the hunger in us and keep working hard.
“Everyone’s frustrated but we all believe in ourselves.
“We understand the fans are frustrated but we’ve got each other’s backs.
“It’s challenging. We will get out of it though and I’m confident it’s only a short amount of time before we do that.”
Despite a barren run of results, North End having not scored or picked up a point on the road this season, Earl believes an upturn in fortunes is not far away.
PNE are currently second from bottom of the early table, having picked up just five points from their opening eight games, a far cry from their seventh-placed finish last term as they came so close to the play-offs.
“We’re nowhere near giving up,” said the 19-year-old academy product. “There’s no question about that. We’re still fighting. We’re not miles away from where we need to be at the moment.
“It’s not like we’re going out and getting battered by teams.
“We were in the game for the first 20 minutes against Leeds and then conceded and a few heads dropped.
“We’re still only three wins off the play-offs so it’s not the end of the world at the moment. It’s only September.
“But we know we need to pick up points quickly and we are working hard and trying to work together properly as a team to start winning games again.”
Earl has been forced to wait his turn this season.
Greg Cunningham’s departure saw the converted winger take the Irishman’s No.3 shirt but it was new arrival Andrew Hughes who started the campaign at left-back in the league.
Earl played in the League Cup wins against Morecambe and Leeds before making his first Championship appearance of 2018-19 against Reading last Saturday, it having been the Royals he faced when handed a surprise senior debut by Neil last season.
“You have got to wait your turn,” said the Southport-born defender.
“The gaffer is going to need every player this season.
“I just had to keep my head down and keep pushing for a start.
“It’s a matter of time before you get your chance and then when you do get your chance you’ve just got to take it.
“I’m happy with how I played last year. It’s been nice to get some minutes in the league over the last week.
“I’m still making mistakes because I’m a young player but I feel like I am improving slowly.
“It’s about continuing to do that.
“It’s not easy trying to fill Greg Cunningham’s boots because he was probably the best left-back in the league.
“I’m doing my best and I’ve just got to iron out those mistakes that I’m making to try and get to his level.”
Earl is under no illusions, though, and knows that his run as the man in possession of the left-back berth can end almost as soon as it has begun. “I wouldn’t say I’ve got the shirt yet,” he said.
“We’ve both played well in games and one mistake can bounce you out of the team and then Andrew could come in and make the place his.
“No one is safe because of the squad we have.
“Anyone can come in and fill your position and play really well. It’s not a case of just having the shirt, it’s about trying to keep it.
“But the gaffer can also play a team to suit a certain opposition we’re playing against and it’s just a matter of playing really well when you get a chance.”
His league return in the 3-2 defeat against Reading saw Earl deployed as a left wing-back, something that suits his attacking attributes having been a winger for large parts of his development in the North End academy.
It certainly worked, the former Lancaster City loanee being involved in Daniel Johnson’s first goal before laying on an assist for Callum Robinson’s close-range finish.
“I enjoyed playing there, it was good fun,” Earl said.
“Last season was the only time I’ve played left-back before so it was good because I have usually been more advanced.
“It’s a big part of my game. It was good to get my first assist as well.
“I just want to play wherever I can on the pitch though. It doesn’t really matter to me. It’s all about where the gaffer needs me.”
Whether he is selected on Saturday or not, Earl just wants to build on a fast start to this professional career, the start against Leeds having been his 24th North End appearance.
“A lot has happened this year and I’ve really enjoyed the experience,” he said.
“I’m hungrier than ever to play.
“I’ve learnt a lot. I’ve matured on and off the pitch.
“Last year was a really good season for us and we’ve got time to replicate it again.
“We need to pull our finger out and start playing better.
“We can’t point fingers at attackers or defenders because we’re not playing well collectively as a team.
“We know that we’ve got to improve and we know that we’ve got to do better. We’ve got to iron out all of the mistakes that we’re making at the moment.”