Preston North End Season Preview: the post-Grayson era

The big news at Deepdale this summer is that manager Simon Grayson has left after four years at the helm. In that time, Preston have grown from being League One relegation strugglers to become a respected top half Championship outfit. Supporter Ben – who runs the excellent Ben HD Championship channel – is grateful for the job Grayson did.

He did brilliant with us and I must admit I was sad to see him move on. Considering he inherited a squad which was disjointed and unhappy, I’ll always be thankful to the work he’s done here. But that’s football and I’m very excited to see what the future holds!

Replacing Grayson as manager is Alex Neil, who had a mixed spell at Norwich. Do you hope he’s re-energized after six months away from the game?

I hope so, from all of the interviews and clips I’ve seen of him he is clearly very adamant to prove a point and has a desire to succeed. Out of all the names we were being linked with, I would say that Neil was probably one of the better candidates to take this squad forward and build on the foundations set by Simon Grayson.

You’ve signed a lot of players from the League of Ireland, most recently Sean Maguire. Are you concerned the club is shopping in the bargain basement, or do Daryl Horgan’s performances suggest there’s value to be found?

I think that most North End fans accept this model the club currently has. We’re not going to be splashing £10 million on a striker anytime soon. From our last 4 or so seasons I think we’ve found some real value from various youth academy’s and the League of Ireland. Players such as: Daryl Horgan, Alan Browne, Callum Robinson and Ben Pearson among others have all come in for next to nothing from different academy’s or Irish teams, so I would certainly suggest there’s value to be had. Hopefully Sean Maguire will have a similar impact and prove to be the striker we were missing last season.

You offered more pace going forward than last season. Have the introductions of young, hungry attacking players such as Callum Robinson helped that?

Absolutely, I think this is an area where Alex Neil could especially aid our young attackers and allow them more freedom in the final third. Callum Robinson, Daryl Horgan and especially Tom Barkhuzien are gifted with abundances of pace between them. With Jordan Hugill to play off, this is where I see the majority of our goals coming from this season.

Equally, you weren’t quite as physical as we’ve come to expect from Simon Grayson sides, shipping 63 goals. With a bit of money cleared off the wage bill, should you look to sign a holding midfielder and a powerful centre-back?

A powerful centre-back needs to be the number one priority for Alex Neil in the transfer market – especially with skipper Tom Clarke ruled out until next year with a ruptured Achilles. We’re just left with Paul Huntington, Andy Boyle and the young Ben Davies to fill the position for the time being. Our back four is probably my biggest concern going into this season. Considering Neil’s desire to play out from the back, this will be a key area for us this season and without a doubt needs strengthening quickly.

A holding midfielder to play alongside Ben Pearson would also be welcome. Although we are already stocked up in that position I get the impression it’s quantity over quality. I love Paul Gallagher and John Welsh although since they’ve both hit 30, injuries have become common. Daniel Johnson and Alan Browne are both capable, although they can be frustratingly inconsistent.

Chris Maxwell had a good season last year but new signing Declan Rudd has penned a three-year deal. Who do you see starting against Sheffield Wednesday?

This is a battle I’m really looking forward to seeing over the course of the season, two goalkeepers who I’m a big fan of. Chris Maxwell was terrific when he claimed the number 1 spot ahead of Anders Lindegaard last season however his performances did start to dip towards of the end of the season – perhaps due to the lack of competition from Anders.

Declan Rudd’s arrival at Deepdale was met with excitement amongst the fans however, he perhaps would have been a little apprehensive to be reunited with his former manager Alex Neil – who loaned him out to Charlton last season as his opportunities at Norwich were limited.  Of course pre-season will give us a further indication as to who’s in form and who Neil is fancying but if I had to call it now, I’d say Rudd would just sneak in ahead of Maxwell.

Greg Cunningham formed a good left-sided partnership with Aiden McGeady last season. Can new signing Josh Harrop fill the latter’s boots?

Filling McGeady’s boots is going to be a tough task for anyone this season, although I see Harrop playing more central, similar to Callum Robinson just behind the striker. If I had to call it now, I’d say Horgan will start on the left and look to form that partnership with Cunningham. In terms of Harrop though, I’m excited to see what he has to offer. With fast feet and an eye for goal, I think he could have a great contribution to goals this season.

Right-back was a position which changed hands last year and Alex Baptiste has gone back to Middlesbrough. Do you expect one to come in?

Right back seemed to be a cursed position last season as we watched 5 different players fill the role – all who were injured at some point. At the club at the moment are Calum Woods and Marnick Vermijl. Two right backs who have very different strengths and weaknesses. In the 2015/16 season Calum Woods showed real potential and ability to make the step back up to the Championship and was probably one of our most consistent performers that year.

Unfortunately, he then picked up a serious knee injury which ruled him out for the entire 2016/17 campaign.  He’s a versatile player who excels in defending 1-on-1 situations however, he isn’t the most potent going forward. He’s yet to feature in pre-season so far, so it’s yet to be seen if he’s still the player he once was.

Marnick Vermijl seems to be the opposite, most suited to the wing-back role, he can deliver a great cross and knows how to take on a man however, struggles when he’s up against a skilful winger who knows a trick or two. He’s really like marmite with our fans, you either love him or hate him. As I probably fall into the latter category, I hope to see another right back come in.

What are your thoughts ahead of the Championship season as a whole? Any potential dark horses for you?

I’m really excited for this season, unlike last year with Newcastle and Brighton running away with it, I get the feeling this one will be much closer at the top and bottom. In terms of dark horses, I’m fancying Brentford if they can add a couple more players and keep hold of Jota. He showed how much damage he can do in this league and with a young hungry squad they have everything they need to put on a good season.

Where will you finish?

There’s a lot of optimism around the club at the moment, with the new manager buzz still going around. He’s already said he wants us to be playing attacking football, playing out from the back and being aggressive off the ball. If we can sort out our back four then we could be onto something. So accounting for a change in style, which may take us a few games to fully get to grips with. I hope to see us pushing for the play-offs after two solid seasons of establishing ourselves but think we may just fall short again.

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Preston have shopped frugally this summer and new arrivals arguably come in the stronger areas of their squad. They have lost stability at centre-back and while Robinson and Pearson should impress again, it may take some time to adapt to the post-Grayson era. 16th