When Preston were relegated to League One, tough decisions had to be made.
North End’s budget was hit massively, and most business done was based around loans and free transfers. Preston did end up winning promotion in 2015, but some factors still aren’t back to their former state.
The main one for many fans surrounds the development squad – or lack thereof. When Graham Westley was in charge, he told the BBC that the money set aside for any development squad would be going to the first team, as Preston just didn’t have the budget to put into younger players ahead of first-team matters.
Westley’s comments and the subsequent decision are now eight years old, and North End have been back in the second tier for almost five years, but Preston still don’t have a development squad as things stand.
Preston lost out on players as a result of that decision, with Reece James leaving Preston for Manchester United at the time of Westley’s decision. North End previously picked up the odd local free agent for the development squad in the Championship days, but that no longer happens.
North End’s setup features an Under-18 side and then the first team; there’s nothing in-between, no halfway point that could aid development ahead of first-team action. Instead, it’s essentially a Preston XI that take part in the occasional behind-closed-doors game, with youngsters sometimes picked to play alongside fringe first-teamers looking to build form and fitness.
That isn’t exactly pushing competitive football for young players, which means loans are utilised instead. Ethan Walker, Adam O’Reilly, Jack Baxter and Jack Armer – four of Preston’s brightest young talents – are currently playing non-league football, which will serve them well in terms of developing in the men’s game, but maybe isn’t of the technical quality they need.
Alex Neil recently highlighted the issue, noting that young players going from a Category 3 academy at Preston to first-team football in the Championship is a massive jump, hence the decision to loan players out.
Yet North End can do something themselves, without needing to send youngsters away to local non-league sides. Preston can join the Professional Development League, entering a league that features the likes of Burnley, Wigan Athletic and Bolton Wanderers.
Alternatively, and this one is a little more ambitious, Preston can try to follow Brentford’s lead. They pulled out of academy football and instead formed a Brentford B team, and rather than play in a league, they arrange games against B teams from around the world to give their young players a taste of football from all corners of the globe.
North End maybe don’t quite have the links or infrastructure to pull that off right now, but Brentford have shown what a little ambition and invention can do. Their B team is stacked full of local young players and even imports from Scandinavia and central Europe, offering a pathway to the first team.
Neil admitting the jump is too big should spark Preston into life here. It’s time for a development squad to be reintroduced, both to try and give young players a clear pathway to first-team football, and to try and pick up discarded talents from local Premier League sides for the future.
The decision taken in 2012 was completely understandable, but if North End want to show that they’re ready to compete with established Championship clubs in the future, then they need to think about the development of young players – and having a competitive side as an intermediary between youth team and first-team would be a positive step.