We’ve reached the final day of what has been a typically enthralling, tumultuous Championship season. Can you sum up the campaign from a Preston North End perspective…
A mixed bag, I think, would be a good way of describing it. The first couple of weeks were alright, they had a poor end to August into September and then there was a massive recovery in October, November and part of December. It was a sticky Christmas and New Year, then a 12-game unbeaten run from January 12 through to the end of March, but now they’ve fallen away from the Play-Off picture since the March international break. There’s been a bit of everything, really.
West Bromwich Albion’s hopes of naming Alex Neil as Darren Moore’s successor were dashed in April when the Scotsman signed new a three-year contract at Deepdale. How much of a relief was that to supporters?
It was a big relief; there was genuine fear that he’d go to West Brom. Neil’s done well here. In his first season he took Preston to seventh place and probably over-achieved a little bit. Going into the March international break this year they got to seventh again, level on points with the top six and just outside on goal difference. There’s a real feeling that they are building something here with quite a young squad; North End fans didn’t really want to see another managerial disruption that would force them to start all over again.
Continuity is a big thing. Sometimes in the past, when another club has come in, Preston have tended to lose managers: Simon Grayson went to Sunderland a couple of years ago, they lost Billy Davies to Derby County and David Moyes to Everton. It bucked a trend, a little bit, that when the manager was wanted, they actually kept hold of him this time.
Looking forward to next season, what sort of business does Alex Neil need to do to build on what Preston have achieved this term?
He’s been talking about adding a little bit more experience to the squad, because it is quite young. Paul Gallagher, at 34, is the veteran of the squad, but he’s the only regular beyond the age of around 26/27. I’m not saying they are going to pack the squad with 30-year-olds; their policy of signing young players has worked well, but mixed among them they need some older heads. That will be key, but keeping hold of key players is just as important as signing a few. Callum Robinson, Alan Browne, Ben Pearson and Ben Davies who are four of the standout players, I’d say. If they can keep hold of those players that would be a boost.
They’ve had a load of injuries this season, some of them include unavoidable contact injuries. They do seem to have had a lot of hamstring and thigh injuries, so they are looking to see if they are doing anything wrong, looking at workload to see if they can cut down on those. At times, there have been spells where they’ve had eight or nine players out at a time, as they do at the moment.
Which Preston player would get your vote for Player of the Year?
My player of the season would be Ben Davies, the centre-half. He’s been with the club since he was nine, came through the academy, got his debut very early as a 17-year-old in 2013, but has had about five or six loan spells since then to build him up and get him ready. Since Alex Neil came in, he’s been a regular at centre-half and has been captain a couple of times. He’s a left-footed centre-half who can play, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up with the award, at this rate.
How are PNE likely to set up for Sunday’s game?
They’ve tended to play 4-1-4-1 this season, but last season and part of this, they’ve played 4-2-3-1. It tends to be a flat back four, Ben Pearson playing as a holding midfielder, two attacking midfielders in front of him, and two wide lads who push up to support the frontman. They started that in January and they’ve stuck with it ever since, really.
You’ve previously alluded to North End’s struggles in West London and a little digging finds that, since the end of World War Two, they’ve won just four games at Griffin Park. What’s your score prediction for the game?
I’ll go for a 1-1 draw, I’m not going to predict a win because they never win there!
Secure your tickets for the last Sky Bet Championship game at Griffin Park this season. Give Thomas Frank and The Bees the support they deserve and help us end our 2018/19 campaign on a high.