How Neil has helped Pre­ston press on

Club with strong Ir­ish con­tin­gent now up to fourth place and only two points off top Man­ager in a hurry to make up for lost time af­ter get­ting the sack at Nor­wich

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SOCCER - MICHAEL BUT­LER

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. See­ing value in a de­fender who was part of a rel­e­gated side that 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 left back Josh Earl.

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.

New phi­los­o­phy

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. 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 to­day, 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.

Dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tions

“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. “Be­cause we haven’t been there, we get dis­re­garded to an ex­tent.”

Pre­ston’s Sean Maguire, a key sign­ing from Cork City, is con­grat­u­lated on scor­ing his side’s sec­ond goal dur­ing the Cham­pi­onship match against Cardiff last week.

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.

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

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