Today is May 22nd. Saturday marks two months of lockdown in the UK, as the battle against the global pandemic continues. Sunday marks five years since Preston returned to the Championship with a 4-0 playoff final win over Swindon Town.
Today though, today is Paul Huntington’s day. Eight years ago on this day, North End swooped to sign the defender on a free transfer from Yeovil Town.
Graham Westley was in the midst of overhauling his Preston side. A dismal first season back in League One meant Westley was searching for proven third-tier performers who could bring grit and reliability to the side.
The likes of John Welsh, Scott Laird, Nicky Wroe and David Buchanan arrived, with Huntington joining from Yeovil. Then 24, Huntington was only given a new two-year deal – but he has stayed for much, much longer.
Huntington arrived with decent pedigree. The Carlisle-born defender came up through the Newcastle United ranks, and actually played first-team football. He played 11 Premier League games, 16 in total and even bagged a Premier League goal with a strike against Tottenham Hotspur in January 2007.
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Just months later, the Magpies offloaded Huntington. They seemingly felt that he wouldn’t make the grade long-term, and Leeds United paid an undisclosed fee to lure him to Elland Road. He tasted heartache in his first season with the club, as Leeds lost the League One playoff final to Doncaster Rovers.
Ultimately, Huntington’s Leeds career never got off the ground. He managed just 32 appearances, and barely featured once Simon Grayson became manager. He was shipped off to Stockport County, with his career in danger of sliding further and further down the pyramid.
However, the 6ft 4in defender got back on track at Yeovil. He became a reliable defender for the Somerset side, whilst boasting a strong goalscoring record of seven goals in 85 games. When the opportunity came for him to move back up north with Preston, he took it – and few could have predicted that he would become such an integral player.
Eight years since his move, Huntington has now made 280 appearances for North End. He’s been through the Graham Westley era, he managed to change Simon Grayson’s mind with a frankly absurd nine-goal 2014-15 season, including a goal in that playoff final win over Swindon, and managed to do what he never had before – become a Championship regular.
Yes, he’s slipped down the pecking order now. Patrick Bauer and Ben Davies are Preston’s first-choice defenders, but Alex Neil knows that he can rely on Huntington to step in whenever needed and show leadership and solid defensive play. He’s ‘old-fashioned’; he’ll kick it and head it away, and some thought that would see him phased out under Neil. With 80 appearances under the Scot, he has again proved his value at Deepdale.
Now 32, Huntington is closing in on a huge milestone. He’s just two years away from earning a testimonial, with his current contract taking him up until 2021. That target is now well in sight for Huntington, and he needs to prove that he is worth another year extension.
As time passes, that may become difficult. He is such a big character though, a true leader of the dressing room and a player with the club at heart, that it’s hard to see Neil ditching him any time soon. From the scrapheap at Newcastle and Leeds to a modern-day Preston hero, Huntington has found himself a home – and it could stay that way for a while yet.