There was a special sense of excitement at 2pm on Saturday. For the first time in over three months, a Preston teamsheet was finally being released.
The global pandemic put football on the shelf in March, and the long wait was finally over. It only really started to feel real when the team was announced, and that moment is always an important one on matchday.
Fans share their immediate reactions, discuss tactics and selections and try to imagine how the following three hours will unfold.
Saturday’s lineup finally brought back that feeling and those discussions – but there was one thing that may have raised some eyebrows from North End supporters.
When the team came out, it seemed clear that Alan Browne was playing at right-back. North End admirably get by with square pegs in round holes at times, but there was something fairly funny about having three months away and coming back with a midfielder playing at right-back.
It’s not even like Darnell Fisher was out. North End’s usual right-back was on the bench, so Alex Neil either felt that Browne was the better option at right-back for this specific game or Fisher wasn’t fully fit.
Either way, what seemed like a curious choice ended up working well. Browne has played in that position before as an emergency, but he turned in a strong performance on Saturday afternoon.
With Luton playing a narrow diamond, Browne was able to get forward and support the attack. He was as combative and committed as ever, and proved that he can play in that right-back role without any fuss.
That’s Browne to a tee; no fuss. No matter where he is asked to play, he can always be relied upon to turn in a strong performance, and that’s exactly why he has become one of Alex Neil’s most trusted players.
He is primarily a box-to-box midfielder, but spent plenty of time as a number 10 in Neil’s first two seasons. He’s been deployed out wide, and even filled in for Ben Pearson as a holding midfielder.
Some will remember him playing as a centre back against Aston Villa in 2017; there are very few roles Browne hasn’t filled for North End now.
Neil’s own comments summed it up. Speaking to iFollow after the game, Neil hailed Browne as ‘terrific’ against Luton, possibly even the best player on the pitch whilst praising his flexibility.
“I thought he was terrific,” said Neil. “I thought, arguably, he was probably if not the best player on the pitch, then one of them. He’s so flexible; he played against Burnley at right-back against, he was terrific then as well, so no issues here,” he added.
Browne has just one year left on his deal, meaning Preston may have to replace him at some point in the near future – and it will be hard to find anybody as committed and versatile as the Irishman.