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Preston North End, a historic English club turning adversity into an advantage

If football can come down to money, Championship Preston are making a virtue of having less of it

Striker David Nugent returned to Preston North End last summer having spent two years at the club from 2005. Getty Images
Striker David Nugent returned to Preston North End last summer having spent two years at the club from 2005. Getty Images

A historic northern club is enjoying a renaissance. A limited budget and a group of players with unglamorous origins in the lower leagues have not stopped them outperforming and, given an enterprising style of play, often outplaying more fancied teams. Their seemingly old-fashioned model has rarely looked more progressive or relevant.

If it is Sheffield United’s story, it is not just theirs. “We can certainly look at it and see what we have achieved. If it is them, why not us?” asked the Preston North End manager Alex Neil. “I get on with Chris Wilder so I know the team spirit and togetherness that they have. I think that is very much the same as ours. They were not one of the big spenders. They are very much a workmanlike club, similar to ourselves. There are no airs and graces to us. We get where we are because of hard work.”

With perhaps the fourth lowest budget in the Championship, Neil has steered Preston to second. When they were top two weeks ago, it was their highest position since 2006. England’s original Invincibles, the club who completed the 1888/89 season unbeaten, have been absent from the top flight since 1961, the year after their greatest player, Tom Finney, retired. Borrowing from the Blades’ blueprint may change that for nearly men. Preston have nine top-half Championship finishes in the 21st century, including three visits to the play-offs; perhaps they have been the most successful club not to play in the Premier League but the fact is that they have not.

Alex Neil has guided the club to second in the Championship as they chase promotion to the Premier League. PA
Alex Neil has guided the club to second in the Championship as they chase promotion to the Premier League. PA

“They have had their chances where they have just slipped outside the play-offs,” said forward David Nugent. “But this season feels different. People are standing up now and saying: ‘Preston are here to stay.’” Nugent helped North End come fourth in 2006 and returned to Deepdale in the summer with unfinished business. “I felt like I needed to come back and try one more time and get them into the Premier League,” said the former England striker. Nugent’s age – 34 – and time at Derby County, Middlesbrough, Leicester City and Portsmouth mark him out as the exception in a lesser-known squad recruited from lower-profile clubs.

“We are getting the best players from League Two and League One,” Nugent added. “They don’t want to come here because they are getting more money. They want to come here because they want to be successful.” Good players have also proved good characters. “No bad eggs, no egos,” Nugent said. And, in most cases, no previous top-flight experience.

Preston have bought from Morecambe, Rotherham, Rochdale, Exeter, Peterborough, Barnsley, Bristol Rovers and Oxford. Seemingly mundane CVs also feature Chesterfield, Fleetwood, Newport, Dorchester, Accrington, Torquay, Hereford and Halifax. But midfielder Alan Browne who, like his fellow Irishman Sean Maguire came from Cork City, said: “There is some fantastic quality right down through the leagues.”

Alan Browne was signed from Cork City's Under 19s. PA
Alan Browne was signed from Cork City's Under 19s. PA

His case is slightly different. “I wasn’t even in Cork City’s first team, I was in the Under 19s,” Browne added. Preston have also recruited products of Premier League academies, sometimes after they went down the divisions, but it is telling their record buy remains David Healy, who joined in 2001 for £1.5 million.

Preston have turned adversity into an advantage. “When you get money, you get the bigger names, it brings different problems,” said Neil. “Although we will have some fans who have got frustrations that we are not spending big money and we are not going to sign big names, we have the satisfaction of bringing these lads through who have played at lower levels. It doesn’t mean they are not as good as players who are elsewhere. It just means they haven’t made their reputations yet.”

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It is easy to judge players on price tag and pedigree, to assume Preston are the surprise package. “I am definitely not surprised,” said Browne. “Outsiders probably think everyone in here is jumping for joy and thinking we have overachieved but I don’t think there is one person here thinking like that. If anything, we are disappointed because in a lot of games we have been very, very unlucky.”

They came 14th last season, but only after injuries contributed to an awful start. Now their last 46 matches have brought 77 points. Sixteen this year have yielded 31. Preston are the top scorers at home in the country, with 25 goals at Deepdale already. Ten clubs have fewer home goals than North End’s penalty-taking No 10 Daniel Johnson has mustered on his own. “It is not just the strikers scoring goals, it is the wingers and the midfielders. ‘DJ’ has contributed with eight,” Nugent said.

Neil has looked to get Preston’s full-backs further forward this season to make them more of an offensive threat. Browne has observed a different sort of positivity from the former Norwich City manager, who arrived in 2017 and who has turned down interest from West Bromwich Albion and Stoke to stay. “He turned our mindsets around from staying in the league to [saying] we are capable of beating anyone and it doesn’t have to be ‘on our day’.”

A December laced with tests against the best, from West Brom to Fulham to Leeds United, will offer an indication of their credentials, but Browne said: “We are not going to get giddy.” They will not approach meetings with costlier teams with an inferiority complex. “The way I think, and a lot of the lads do as well, is that just because a player has been bought for more than me, it doesn’t mean they are better than me,” Browne added. “We can outwork them and outplay them.”

A general view of Deepdale, home of Preston North End. Getty Images
A general view of Deepdale, home of Preston North End. Getty Images

If Preston go up, it will be the hard way, but also the best way. “It’s not impossible but it is more difficult than going out there and spending £60 million,” Neil said. “It’s a better process because you are invested in it for a long period of time. When we do get there [it] will be really special. As a manager, you build more connections with your players than you would if you have just got a big pot of gold.”

If football can come down to money, Preston are making a virtue of having less of it. “I think a lot of players look at money and go to a bigger club to try and get promoted,” Browne said. “But it would mean a lot more to me to get promoted with this club than any other.”

Updated: November 21, 2019 01:55 PM

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