When Andrew Hughes went down with a hamstring injury last month, it looked like Preston would pay the price for not signing a left back.
You couldn’t really script it; the transfer window slammed shut with no left back signed. A move for Max Lowe failed, but Josh Earl was still sent out on loan to Botlon Wanderers. That left Hughes as Preston’s only left back until January.
In the very next game, Hughes damaged his hamstring against Wigan Athletic. The Welshman hasn’t played a first-team game since, sitting on the sidelines for over a month. Disaster appeared to have struck, but Joe Rafferty has stepped up admirably.
It’s only fair to start by admitting a mistake on Rafferty. We wrote in August that the January deal for Rafferty was looking pointless; after all, Tom Clarke had been picked at right back instead of Rafferty, with Alex Neil seemingly not trusting him at Millwall.
Rafferty was signed from Rochdale after failing to land other targets, and it looked like a bargain basement move that wouldn’t really pay off. He’d barely featured after signing, and Clarke playing over him seemed bizarre. Having never played in the Championship before, you began to wonder whether he’d make the grade at Deepdale.
However, Rafferty has been proving us wrong in recent weeks. The 25-year-old has filled in admirably at left back, producing impressive displays despite playing out of position.
He’s been solid defensively, he hasn’t looked out of place against Championship wingers, and he’s contributed going forward. His goal at Swansea City was a decent long-range strike, and he played a key role in Billy Bodin’s goal at Nottingham Forest with a fine angled pass.
The likes of Bodin, Seani Maguire, Daniel Johnson and even Patrick Bauer have received plenty of plaudits, but Rafferty deserves them too. That we haven’t even spoken about him being a problem at left back goes to show his solidity there in recent weeks.
Rafferty has been an unsung hero since coming in at left back, and Hughes will face a battle to get his spot back. Even if Hughes does come back, Rafferty has proven he can be relied upon as cover on either side of defence – and whilst we thought his signing was becoming pointless, he’s proving it’s far from that.