Heading into his third season at Preston, we’re still not really sure what to make of Josh Harrop.
The playmaker arrived from Manchester United in 2017 with a decent reputation. He’d been a key part of their reserve side, notching eight goals and two assists in his final season.
On the final day of the 2016-17 season, Harrop started against Crystal Palace in the Premier League. Given a chance by Jose Mourinho, Harrop took it; he scored a fine opening goal in the 2-0 win.
Just a month later, Harrop was signing for North End. He turned down an Old Trafford stay to test himself at Deepdale, with North End paying around £600,000 in compensation.
Two years on, it still feels like we’re waiting for Harrop to explode in a North End shirt. Part of that really isn’t his fault; a major knee injury in September saw him mist the rest of the season, and he’s only just back in training.
However, we can’t pretend that he was at the peak of his powers before the injury. Again, it was mere moments of his ability, with Alex Neil still seemingly reluctant to play him.
Now back and ready for pre-season, it feels like make or break time for Harrop. There’s little doubt that he’s a quality player, but at 23, we need to be seeing more than flashes. And right now, there appears to be mixed messages about his role.
Firstly, Neil has told the Lancashire Evening Post that he will be getting a ‘key player’ back in Harrop, alongside fellow long-term absentee Billy Bodin. That at least suggests that Neil has a role in mind for Harrop moving forward, but incomings may chance that.
The same article notes that North End want a ‘technician’ in the final third to help unpick defences. That sounds great, but it’s also exactly what Harrop was brought in to do. Whilst being bigged up as a big player, a similar player may well be signed, potentially pushing Harrop down the Deepdale pecking order.
Neil also moved to a 4-5-1 in 2019, and Harrop’s role in that is an interesting topic. He’s primarily a number 10, which won’t exist in that setup. He could play in from the left, especially with Callum Robinson potentially on the move, or even in the central three.
Harrop played in a more withdrawn role at Leeds United in the Carabao Cup, and earned praise from Neil. Neil branded him ‘fantastic’ as a number eight, hailing him for making more tackles in one game than the rest of his time at North End.
That at least gives Harrop a shout of playing in one of those two roles, ahead of Ben Pearson. With Alan Browne, Brad Potts, Paul Gallagher and Daniel Johnson in the mix, that won’t be easy, but there’s a player in Harrop – we just need to see whether it’s at Preston or elsewhere.