Preston North End 2019-20 Season So Far with From The Finney

Preston North End re-commence their Championship campaign at Luton later this month, so Gabriel Sutton spoke to Jake Oates (@jioates) of From The Finney (@fromthefinney), which is a fantastic PNE website and podcast well worth a follow.

The one upside to the 2019-20 league season not being concluded would be PNE achieving your first top-six Championship finish since 2008-09. How much credit would Alex Neil and the coaching staff deserve for this feat?

Jake: An awful lot. I recently spoke to a former player who played under Alex at North End and he said he was the most meticulous manager he’d worked with in his career in terms of tactics, training and prep for games. I think the players need a lot of credit, too. One of the reasons I think we tend to go under the radar is because we aren’t one of the ‘bigger clubs’ if you will but the players know their jobs, they are very, very good players and they’re the ones who go out and carry out the manager’s instruction and for the most part this season, it’s worked out well because as you say, we’re currently 6th.

The competition for sixth looks weak, in comparison with recent seasons – there’s lots of competitors but they all seem to have at least one significant shortcoming. Do you think you’ve been slightly fortunate in that sense?

Jake: I’m torn on this, to be honest. We’ve perhaps been fortunate to an extent but we are where we are because of our form over the 75/80% or so that we’ve played of the season so far and that form has gotten us to 6th and we deserve to be there.

Eight of the 10 PNE players who managed 20+ league starts have been there for at least three years – in some cases, much longer. Do you see it as an advantage, having a stable group of players? Alternatively, are there problems with recruitment that could become more costly once some of the stalwarts either leave or decline?

Jake: To answer the first question, I do think it helps to have a stable group of players who all seem to get on together and are all very good players. Alex Neil has improved the likes of Darnell Fisher, Ben Pearson, Ben Davies, Alan Browne, Tom Barkhuizen and Callum Robinson and Jordan Hugill before they left the club and I think that’s another thing people don’t consider.

I think we will have a problem in the summer of 2021, though. As it stands the following players are out of contract that summer: Billy Bodin, David Nugent, Ben Davies, Ben Pearson, Alan Browne, Sean Maguire, Andrew Hughes, Daniel Johnson, Josh Harrop, Darnell Fisher, Ryan Ledson, Josh Earl, Paul Huntington, Louis Moult and Adam O’Reilly.

That’s 15 senior players, with the exception of Adam O’Reilly who is still a young lad and yet to make an impact in the first team. The majority of those players are also in the starting XI or at least in the matchday squad week in, week out so it’s a lot of work to do to either find replacements within our budget or offering new contracts out.

I don’t think many North Enders were overly keen on Declan Rudd last summer, but he’s started all 37 league games this season. Dec defying doubters?

Jake: Undoubtedly his form has improved this season. He had a couple of questionable games early on this season in my opinion but as the season has progressed, he’s improved as we’ve gone on and is well worth his new contract.

Connor Ripley was probably the best goalkeeper in League One in 2016-17 and he did ok last year at Stanley too. With just two PNE appearances so far, do you hope he’ll get a fair crack of the whip?

Jake: I simply don’t think he’s up to it and I also don’t think the manager and his staff think that too, it’s that simple.

Darnell Fisher got some bad reviews from Rotherham fans when he signed three years ago but he seems to have proved himself at right-back with 100 appearances for the Lilywhites. Are you hoping he can stay free from suspension when football returns?

Jake: I hope he can stay free from injury and suspension, yes. He’s probably one of the best right-backs in the Championship at the moment in my opinion. Not the best, by any stretch but probably top 5/10.

Andrew Hughes is a steady enough left-back but he won’t offer you much beyond the half-way line… and of course, Joe Rafferty is right-footed. Is this an area you’d like to see the club address when a transfer window opens?

Jake: It’s an area that we need to address, without a doubt. As you mentioned, Raff is right-footed and naturally a right-back. He’s okay as a fill-in left-back but if we’re serious about getting out of the Championship, Joe Rafferty isn’t the answer, even as back up.

Regarding Andrew Hughes, I like him a lot. He’s brilliant in the air but this season seems to have regressed a bit in terms of his attacking output and I’m not sure if that’s anything to do with his injury problems. But yeah, we need to bring in a new left-back because I think Josh Earl’s long term future lies at centre-back, like Ben Davies.

We mentioned the club’s questionable recent success rate when it comes to recruitment, but Patrick Bauer looks like a strong addition. How would you assess his centre-back partnership with Ben Davies?

Jake: Pat is up there as one of the best in the league, for me. He’s has been brilliant for us and seems to be the perfect foil for Ben who is more of a ball player. Also, he’s been immense in the air. It’s no surprise to see him, according to WhoScored, at the top of the list for total aerial duels won by central defenders with 10 or more appearances in the Championship.

The one area Davies is questioned on is his turn of pace… and I’m not sure that’s necessarily something Bauer is renowned for either. Davies is obviously a particularly good centre-back – but if he departed and Josh Earl were to be converted into a central defender, you might be stronger at defending against transitions?

Jake: In fact, I disagree. Ben isn’t slow at all, he’s quick both with the ball at his feet and without. Bauer isn’t necessarily quick though.

One imagines you have to deal with those transitions more often when you don’t have the fantastic Ben Pearson scuttling, snapping and snuffing out attacks then playing crisp, forward passes to get the team moving. If Pearson were to leave, do you think the club should try to replace him like-for-like, or go without a default ball winner and encourage more defensive awareness throughout the team?

Jake: I would imagine they would look to replace him like for like. With whom, I’m not sure. I’ve seen Ben Whiteman of Doncaster mentioned and I think we’ve spoken about him on the podcast too but whether or not that’s a deal we can do, especially after the way COVID-19 will affect football moving forward, I’m not sure.

Another important midfielder is Daniel Johnson who, as we saw in the 5-1 win over Barnsley in particular, can be a key creative outlet between the lines. Is he best suited to the number 10 position rather than somewhere deeper?

Jake: Yeah, absolutely. The game away at Barnsley, the game away at Wigan are two others that stick out to me for brilliant performances from DJ playing higher up the pitch and making things happen, including scoring goals.

When Brad Potts showed a lot of potential at Carlisle and Blackpool, he tended to be the most advanced in a three-man midfield, given the freedom to make driving forward runs. Has he been unlucky that Johnson has been in great form this season – and that Alan Browne seems to be favoured when Johnson is out?

Jake: I think he’s being used completely differently at North End. Alex Neil seems to have given him specific instructions in certain games, like the Leeds game away on Boxing Day or the West Brom game at home. He’s also played a number of different positions in his time here, too.

Midfielders Tom Bayliss and Ryan Ledson both got their Deepdale moves off the back of showing potential in Leagues One and Two, but this season, they have really struggled for minutes while veteran Paul Gallagher has started 18 league games. Would you like to see Neil reduce Gally’s minutes next season and start to introduce Bayliss and Ledson more?

Jake: First of all, Gally might not even be at the club next season or playing professional football for that matter. He’s out of contract at the end of this season and he could possibly retire. I’d like to see him given another 12-month deal, though. In terms of Bayliss and Ledson, I would like to see them get a chance but on the whole, we have an incredibly good, seasoned at this level, midfield with Ben Pearson, Alan Browne, Daniel Johnson and of course, Gallagher. There are question marks over the other three players, too.

We could possibly cash in on them this summer considering they’re out of contract next summer and if that happens, I would imagine both Ledson and Bayliss would get a chance. But it’s worth noting Bayliss has missed a chunk of the season recently with an injury.

Tom Barkhuizen has chipped in with a respectable nine goals this season; four from playing wide right and five from starting up top. He’s full of direct running, isn’t he?

Jake: Absolutely, and he’s a very underrated finisher, too. He’s a very good Championship player.

Sean Maguire scored ten goals in his debut season at Deepdale – when he’d been injured between November and March that year – yet three fewer in his subsequent two terms combined. Would you like to see him try to push for double-figures next year?

Jake: I would yes, of course. He was brought in as a striker and it’s an area we’ve struggled in this season but his work rate and overall what he brings to the side justifies his place in the XI most weeks. Despite what some North End fans think, Alex Neil likes what Seani offers which, I’m presuming, is the reason he starts him when he can.

Also, just a note that some of the stick he has had from some of our fanbase on social media this season has been bang out of order.

Barkhuizen and Maguire are probably best out wide, Jayden Stockley looks short on most attributes aside from aerial prowess, David Nugent can’t play 90 minutes and Louis Moult has been a long-term absentee. Are you in need of a striker without one clear weakness?

Jake: Without a shadow of a doubt. Whenever the transfer window happens we need to address two key areas; striker and left-back.

Putting aside the ultimate outcome for the moment, how do you reflect on the season as a whole?

Jake: As it stands right now with players returning to training recently, I reflect on the season, positively. We’ve punched well above our weight in terms of budget and hopefully we continue to do so when football eventually returns.