Preston’s season is now finally over, with Wednesday’s 1-1 draw at Bristol City bringing the curtain down on the campaign.
North End finish this pandemic-hit season in ninth place, four points adrift of the playoffs in a term that just petered out towards the end.
The summer now brings question marks over the future, as is the case for any club. Players will come and go, changes will be made and the landscape will undoubtedly change when the 2020-21 season begins.
There is one thing that we are absolutely certain on though; that Alex Neil is absolutely the right man for Preston.
There have been murmurings of interest from Bristol City. We’ve been here before; a move to West Brom fell through in April 2019, with Neil instead signing a new three-year deal at Deepdale.
Stoke City came calling November, but Neil again stayed put. We’re now sat hoping and praying that Neil stays again, but he needs backing properly now.
Neil has spent three years in charge of North End. Our two highest finishes since returning to the Championship in 2015 have both come under Neil; 7th in 2017-18 and now ninth this season.
The Scot has dragged us so close to the playoffs, helping Preston punch way, way above their weight in a division full of former Premier League clubs still dining out on their parachute payments.
Neil has only made two seven-figure signings in his time as Preston boss; Brad Potts and Tom Bayliss last year. For context, Lee Johnson – recently sacked by Bristol City – was given 21 seven-figure signings as Robins boss.
That gulf in spending is huge, and yet Neil has defied the odds and kept Preston challenging, finishing above high-spending clubs year after year.
Now though, Neil needs the tools to make the next step. He has spoken repeatedly in recent weeks that his squad needs some help, with two or three quality additions needed to take the club where it wants to go.
We understand the situation right now. The global pandemic means Preston have to be careful financially, and nobody is really asking for signings in the region of £3m, £4m or £5m; everybody knows that Preston just can’t do that.
But Neil can’t truly take the club forward without more support. He has lost Jordan Hugill, Greg Cunningham and Callum Robinson in his time as North End boss, raking in millions for the trio.
North End haven’t truly replaced them, and it’s notable that when Neil had all three in his side in the 2017-18 season, Preston finished with 73 points – which would have been enough for the playoffs this term.
You cannot keep taking quality out of the side and expecting miracles. Neil has worked them so far, but arguably hasn’t even received the plaudits he deserves from our own fanbase.
There have been far too many calls for Neil to go recently, with some mad belief that there is another manager out there who could fare better with such little backing.
When we talk about backing Neil, we include the fans too. The 39-year-old has done an outstanding job at Deepdale, despite constantly losing key players and rarely having them replaced with similar quality.
Neil isn’t perfect, and he has made some peculiar decisions since lockdown, but how many managers out there are young, progressive, have a promotion to the Premier League on their CV and can make a team with a bottom-six budget into a top-six contender?
We have escaped disaster twice with Neil rejecting West Brom and Stoke. Bristol City pose a very real threat, and without support and backing from the Preston board, we really risk losing arguably our best manager since Billy Davies.
That situation in itself is a stark reminder. Davies, a hungry, young Scottish manager who was turning Preston into promotion candidates on a budget, ended up leaving for another Championship club to get the backing he needed and deserved. He ended up taking Derby County to the Premier League.
Neil would be well within his rights to do the same. We appreciate Trevor Hemmings so much for saving the club, but do not let Neil walk away; now is the time to back him and to take that next step.