In recent years, some of Preston’s best business has – somewhat strangely – been conducted in January.
Ben Pearson, Alan Browne and Tom Barkhuizen are among the players to arrive in mid-season, whilst Sam Johnstone played a key role in 2015 having arrived on loan from Manchester United.
Yet one of the best January deals North End have ever struck occurred five years ago today. On January 23rd 2015, Preston signed midfielder Daniel Johnson from Aston Villa.
Preston famously paid just £50,000 to sign Johnson, who had impressed on loan at Oldham Athletic and Charlton Athletic. Over five years, Johnson has made a mockery of that fee, but it’s important to go back and consider the situation North End were in at the time.
Preston had gone four games without a win when Johnson arrived, and even lost at Crawley Town after signing him. North End needed a spark to maintain their promotion bid, and Johnson was simply perfect at that time.
The Jamaican offered quality on the ball, drive to go forward and a real goal threat, jolting North End back into life. Having opened his account against Scunthorpe United on February 21st, Johnson recorded eight goals in 14 games, making a huge impact from midfield.
Without Johnson, it’s hard to see how North End would have won promotion from League One that season. A truly integral moment in the club’s history may not have come to fruition without the influence of Johnson, who hit the ground running and became an instant favourite at Deepdale.
Since coming up to the Championship, Johnson has been guilty of blowing hot and cold. Some had levelled criticism at him for going missing in games, showing a lack of effort, not having a real position and being simply too inconsistent. Those criticisms have faded away in recent times, and it’s easy to recall some big moments ‘DJ’ has provided us during his five years at Deepdale
In December 2015, Johnson secured a big away win at Burnley with a crucial second goal, and hit a key brace to beat Blackburn Rovers at home a year later. His performance away at Birmingham City in September 2017 was sensational; Johnson ran the show and sparked a memorable comeback with a superb driving run and finish, whilst dictating the game throughout.
This season, Johnson has recaptured his best form, scoring nine times in 20 games. His influence as a number 10 has been massive, providing the composure and creativity that few others at Deepdale can provide. The last two results sum that up; Johnson’s return from injury has resulted in two Preston wins, having looked devoid of inspiration in recent games.
Some wanted him gone when Wigan Athletic came calling over the summer, but Preston certainly made the right decision to keep him. Credit must also be given to Alex Neil, who is getting the most out of Johnson higher up the pitch, and has him playing his best football for North End since his incredible impact in 2015. At this point, Johnson is one of the first names on the teamsheet, and he will be absolutely key if North End are to reach the playoffs this season.
At 27, we’re now seeing Johnson approaching his peak, yet his form almost makes you reminisce about his impact five years ago. Hopefully, there’s much more to come from Johnson, particularly this season, but one thing is absolutely certain – Preston robbed Aston Villa with that £50,000 fee five years ago; you wonder just how much he would cost now.