Soccer Angles: Green shoots at Preston as Irish influence grows
Championship club eye playoffs as blossoming Horgan and Boyle follow lead of McGeady
Preston North End’s Aidan McGeady, the Championship player of the month for February, in action against Fulham at Craven Cottage in March. Photograph: Craig Mercer/CameraSport via Getty Images
Former Dundalk star Daryl Horgan has become a regular at Preston North End. Photograph: Tim Williams/Action Plus via Getty Images
In the bookies on Meadow Street, the broad Lancashire accent posed a question: “What price McGeady, first scorer?”
A quick rattle of the keyboard ensued: “10/1”.
The Lancashire lad looked at his mate. Good enough, the eyes scanned for a pen and docket.
There was an hour to kick-off – Preston North End versus Reading. The bet was on. And when, 28 minutes in around the corner at Deepdale, Aiden McGeady twisted a defender one way, then the other – as he does – and spiked a 10-yard shot goalwards, it seemed the bet was coming in. McGeady had just been voted English Championship player of the month and is in revived form. His aim was true, but Reading’s goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi parried.
Three minutes later Tom Barkhuizen took a pass from Daryl Horgan and curled in a shot from 20 yards. Another beaten docket hit the floor.
As it turned out, though, this was the only thing Preston North End lost all day. Five minutes before half-time Horgan made it 2-0 after a long, fast run from Barkhuizen. Just four minutes after the interval Barkhuizen scored Preston’s third, which stemmed from a delicate free-kick from Horgan. That was that, 3-0, over.
In the match programme, Horgan had said his hero is Damien Duff and he revealed that a Milky Bar Kid outfit is his fancy dress of choice. But Horgan is playing with a maturity appreciated at Deepdale. This was only his 11th match in England and as he embeds the expectation is that he will improve. “Week by week, it’s easier to get used to it,” he said afterwards.
In terms of on-pitch style, Horgan added: “I suppose it’s more of a 4-4-2 here than in Dundalk. The actual game itself here is probably more intense. It’s high tempo, there’s a lot of pressing. With Dundalk we were pressing high, then win the ball back, press again, whereas here the game is just naturally intense. The game is dictating the tempo, if you know what I mean.
“But the adjustments haven’t been too hard – having a good side and a good manager helps.”
Preston had begun the day in ninth place, 11 points off their visitors. They ended it eighth, just six points off Sheffield Wednesday, who occupy the last play-off spot. No one at Deepdale is getting ahead of themselves – this is Preston’s second season in the Championship after four years in the division below – but there is as ever flux and unpredictability in the Championship and sturdy Preston have given themselves a chance.
And of course they have done so with an increasing number of Irishmen.
Meanwhile, down the country at Colchester, Eoin Doyle, another Preston Irishman, was opening the scoring for Portsmouth, where Doyle is on loan.
That’s half-a-dozen heading up Alan Kelly Walk to Preston’s famous stadium this season. There will be more, too. Preston have signed an agreement with Cork’s Ringmahon Rangers and one of their players, Adam O’Reilly, is to arrive this summer. As they did last year, Preston will go to Cork for a friendly.
The idea of Ireland as a talent pool may have diminished with globalisation, but clearly not to Preston manager Simon Grayson. “I think the League of Ireland has been strong if you look back over the years,” Grayson says, pitchside, as his subs warm down. “Lots of payers have come over and done well.”
There are other factors, Grayson notes, in Preston’s westward perspective. One is the phone book of the club’s owner, Trevor Hemmings. Prior to Cheltenham Festival week, where one of Hemmings’ horses, Cloudy Dream, chased home Altior, Grayson adds: “We are fortunate that we’ve got Mr Hemmings, who’s got a lot of contacts over there with the racing fraternity.
“At this moment we’ve been fortunate to get the two lads from Dundalk – we worked very hard to get them.”
Working very hard in this context usually refers to wages and fees. The bottom line speaks in professional football.
Grayson is grateful. There were 10,700 at the match. Up at Newcastle there are regularly 50,000, at Brighton it’s 27,000, at Leeds the average this season is 26,000. Preston have to be clever to compete – Barkhuizen has been brought from nearby Morecambe; Irish recruitment is part of that.
“I’m really pleased with them,” Grayson says, as he runs through the list in his head of Irish players, “they’ve all got different attributes. You’ve seen Aiden today, he’s probably playing his best football in years, he’s working hard, got a smile on his face. Physically he’s in good condition.
“Obviously Boyle has come into it for the last two games, looked like he’s played all season for us. Look at the players he’s up against. He’s waited patiently and he’s stepped up, I’m really pleased for him. It just shows you how much the lads want to do well and make a mark. Daryl Horgan is the same.
“Then we have the other lads who’ve been here a few years now, like Cunningham, who is one of the most under-rated full backs in the division. I think he’s unfortunate not to have been called up by Martin but that probably tells you what Martin’s got in front of Greg.
“Browne is young lad who’s played for the under-21s but he’s on the radar of the full senior squad. “If these [Irish] lads keep producing we’ll probably look for a few more.”
Three days later Horgan, McGeady and Boyle get the call from Martin O’Neill for the squad for the Wales game.
Of these, McGeady is the most likely to feature and against Reading he was up against Chris Gunter, who is set to be the Wales right back in Dublin next Friday. On this evidence McGeady would not be daunted by that challenge; he and Cunningham had an influential partnership down the left as Preston took over this game midway through the first half.
Cunningham, as the list on a Deepdale wall informs, is currently Preston’s player of the year, just as Mark Lawrenson was once.
As Grayson says, Cunningham can count himself somewhat unlucky not to be called by O’Neill. His display was assured defensively, creative and supportive going forward.
Cunningham was part of a defence that kept a clean sheet and at its centre for only the second time was Boyle. Handed a debut at Derby four days earlier, this was Boyle’s home debut. He was booked in the first half for a late lunge but he also dealt with a difficult cross facing his own net minutes before.
Boyle was steady and will feel better for joining his Dundalk colleague Horgan in the first XI.
“I was lucky, I got in early,” says Horgan of Boyle’s introduction by Grayson, “but then it’s easier to throw an attacker on for 10 minutes to change the game, do something different.
“I’m delighted for Andy to get a couple of games – brilliant for his confidence. It’s difficult to go from playing every game [at Dundalk] to not getting a game. I’ve settled in. It helps when you’re playing.”
A local derby – at Blackburn Rovers – is up next. Welcome to Lancashire.
“The lads here have all been very welcoming,” Horgan says. “It’s also nice to hear that Irish accent every now and then.”