How much can we really learn from the pre-season campaign? Well, this is a difficult question and one which has been debated furiously in the past. Whilst pre-season is a prime opportunity for the players to gain match fitness and also knit together as a squad, it’s not always a useful indicator as to how well we will do in the competitive campaign which begins in August.
In the 2009-10 season under the leadership of Darren Ferguson, North End won all but one of their pre-season friendlies, yet just a few months later, Darren Ferguson was potted leaving Preston rooted to the bottom of the table, five points from safety. Phil Brown took the reins in early January, however he could only muster up a lowly 17th place finish, registering just seven more points than Sheffield Wednesday who went down on 47 points.
However, there can often be a positive correlation between a good pre-season and a successful competitive season. In our last pre-season and first under the premiership of Alex Neil, we looked like a very promising outfit, beating teams in emphatic style. The merciless tactician that is Alex Neil, strutted into the club in early July and immediately imposed his passing style of play on the talented group of lads at his disposal. The young squad quickly adapted to this new brand of football and Neil immediately had a few selection dilemmas due to a pipeline of young talent chomping at the bit to take the mantle. We certainly carried our scintillating form forwards, as we had an equally successful season in the Championship, finishing just two points outside those elusive playoff places.
For me, pre-season gives the fans a chance to see how the players are progressing and how well the summer recruits are gelling with the pre-existing group of players. For example, in our first match away at the Sir Tom Finney Stadium, home of Bamber Bridge, plenty of fans remarked on how well Graham Burke had linked up with fellow Irishman Seani Maguire. The two shared an almost telepathic relationship in the final third of the pitch. This was great to see from a pitch side perspective and hopefully indicates that the pair will benefit from what would be a crucial attacking connection.
Furthermore, pre-season also gives the out of favour players a chance to prove their worth and fight for their position at the club. Whilst Daryl Horgan struggled to fit in with Alex Neil’s system last season, I have been very impressed with the way he has played his football so far this pre-season. He’s looked strong on the ball and his delivery has definitely improved. Whilst this was only against non-league opposition, he will get the chance to give Alex Neil a selection headache when we are pitted against West Ham and Burnley in the coming weeks.
Another player who has been in fine form over the last two games is none other than talisman Seani Maguire. Seani has vowed to better himself this coming campaign and there are no doubts that he is capable of doing so. His runs in the previous two games have pulled defences apart, creating pockets of space for his teammates to exploit. He’s also looking extremely sharp and his finishing has been nothing short of clinical; netting five times in just 75 minutes of football. If he can stay fit and utilise the luck of the Irish, I would definitely recommend having a punt on Maguire to be the Championship’s top goalscorer.
From what I have seen of our summer signings, I’d fully expect Andrew Hughes to be an almost like for like replacement of Greg Cunningham. Hughes looks more than competent in our side and even got forward to bag himself a goal as PNE stuck six past AFC Fylde in what was a rampant performance at the Mill Farm complex.
Liverpudlian Ryan Ledson looks like he will need a bit more time yet to fit in with the squad, however this is to be expected from a young prospect who has just come off the back of a demanding season with Oxford United.
Graham Burke is a player who has really impressed in the brief spells I have seen him play. The 24-year-old Dubliner started his career in the youth setup at Villa Park, however, after a couple of short loan spells and a two-year stint at Notts County, Burke landed back up in Ireland where he rose to prominence last season with Shamrock Rovers. In his 41 appearances for Ireland’s most successful club, Burke netted 18 times. This led to his inclusion in the Republic of Ireland national side, where he picked up two caps this year and even scored his first goal for his country. He’s a young lad with plenty of promise and I have no doubt that he will have an immediate impact on our squad.
Despite a lack of experience, Jordan Storey also looked remarkably competent in the 30 minutes he featured on the pitch at Mill Farm. The young, Yeovil-born defender managed to break into the Exeter team in the latter stages of their playoff bound campaign last season and his success as a young centre-half certainly caught the eye of Preston and many other big clubs. The Exeter faithful hailed Storey as a tall, mobile defender, who always looked a threat in the opposition’s penalty area. Standing at 6’2, Storey certainly doesn’t lack in stature and he will definitely provide some much needed height to our relatively small side… No offence lads.
Whilst it is crucial that we do not get too carried away after a couple of decent pre-season results, we can reflect on our performances so far with optimism, as we see the progress made after coming tantalisingly close to the playoffs last season. Alex Neil has a year of experience at the club under his belt and this will only aid him in his goal of taking Preston to the pinnacle of football; the Premier League. In the last three seasons of Championship football, we have seen gradual progression in terms of our final position. Last season we finished 7th place and this came after two consecutive 11th place finishes under Simon Grayson. This time, let’s go one better and secure a playoff place or who knows, maybe even an automatic spot. But like I said, let’s not get too carried away…
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