How Alex Neil has helped Preston press on
Club with strong Irish contingent are in promotion shake-up despite small budget
Preston North End’s Seán Maguire celebrates scoring in a 3-0 win over Cardiff City at Deepdale. The former Cork City striker has impressed for his new club. Photograph: Dave Howarth - CameraSport via Getty Images
Typically the playoffs do not go well for Preston North End. No one in English league history has failed more often – nine times in 10 attempts – in the post-season than the Lancashire club. That is not to say that if you had offered their fans a top-six finish in pre-season, when their manager Simon Grayson was poached by Sunderland, they would have turned you down. But now, under Alex Neil, even at this early stage in the season, there are genuine hopes of a top-two finish and promotion to the Premier League for the first time.
It is not just the numbers – fourth in the table, one defeat in eight, two points from the top – that support this theory, but the manner in which they have gone about their business: no Championship side have conceded fewer goals and they look incisive and attractive going forward, with the much-coveted Jordan Hugill leading the line.
It is the numbers on the balance sheet that makes all this even more impressive. Since arriving in July, Neil has made just one permanent signing, Darnell Fisher from Rotherham United. Seeing value in a defender who was part of a relegated side who conceded 98 league goals last season is perhaps a little unconventional. Yet Fisher has been outstanding, and with the help of the others Preston have conceded only twice in the seven league games he has played. Neil has added three other new faces: Stephy Mavididi on loan from Arsenal and two from the under-18s: goalkeeper Callum Roberts and Josh Earl, who has already made the left-back spot his own.
Everyone and everything else already existed in the first-team, yet in the space of 12 weeks, Neil has transformed them from a steady mid-table side that finished the last two seasons in 11th. All the work has been done on the training ground to create a new philosophy focused on counterattacking football and a high press. “I wanted to change the style of play from the previous regime – which had good success at this club, so there’s no mocking that, but I felt looking at the squad there was enough energy and quality to go and play differently,” Neil says.
“When the opposition have got the ball, we want it as quickly as possible. We don’t sit off the game and let them have it. Make them make mistakes. Hurt them in the transitions. When we’ve got it, we want to rotate it quickly, don’t give them a chance to get set and press you, and try to be as aggressive with our passing as we can.”
Neil’s high-octane style does come with its downsides. Injuries could be more prevalent while discipline is already poor: Preston are top of the Championship charts by a distance in that regard. The availability of their most important players could wane in the coming months.
But talking to Neil, still only 36 years old, you can feel a fire has been lit under him. He speaks in a thick Scottish accent – the only remaining manager in England’s top two leagues to do so – in the same single-minded way that his team plays: with relentless energy.
As he prepares for Millwall on Saturday, Neil is a man in a hurry – but between the Norwich sacking in March and Preston hiring him, he had time to reflect on what went wrong in Norfolk. “A learning curve for me was getting to the Premier League with Norwich where I felt at times we had to adjust our approach,” he explains. “Looking back, I would never do that again – I would carry on with the style that I’ve adopted. Now, I’ve got the courage of my convictions in terms of how I want my teams to play. I’ve got complete clarity in my mind.”
Neil’s style is only possible with certain players, and he was lucky to inherit attackers who are lung-busting fit and possess great pace and speed of thought: Seán Maguire, signed along with Kevin O’Connor from Cork City in the summer, and Tom Barkhuizen, a January addition from Morecambe, have particularly impressed alongside Hugill. The square-shouldered six-footer signed from Port Vale in 2014 and was the subject of €9 million bids from Wolves and Reading in the summer. Hugill even handed in a transfer request, which was rejected.
“Although he’s been promised the riches of wherever, the one thing Jordan did was conduct himself in an immaculate manner. But I did have some difficult conversations with him. We didn’t want to lose our striker; he wanted to try and further his career and make some money for himself. But when the window shut he made it easy for myself, for himself and for the squad.”
Without that fee, money remains tight and a strict wage cap remains in place. But signing and polishing young diamonds from the lower leagues and Ireland (Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle joined from Dundalk last year while Alan Browne is a key man in midfield) seems to be working. “I think age is a big thing,” Neil adds. “A lot of the Norwich players had made their money, and there’s a big difference from younger players trying to find their way.” Only Barnsley and Brentford have fielded a younger starting XI than Preston this season in the division.
A founding member of the Football League, Preston perhaps do not get the recognition they deserve. “The issue with the club, from an outside perspective, is that we’re one of the clubs that hasn’t been in the modern-day Premier League,” says Neil, who took Norwich up via the playoffs in 2015, with North End earning promotion by winning the League One version against Swindon. “Because we haven’t been there, we get disregarded to an extent.”
Indeed they are one of only five Championship clubs to have never played in the Premier League, but right now they are getting closer with each game.