The summer transfer window is over, and for many Preston fans, so are hopes of a playoff push.
When Alex Neil committed his future to North End in April, signing a new three-year contract, there was real hope in the fanbase. Hope that Neil would be backed with considerable funds in the transfer market, hope that a real push for the top six would be in the offing.
It would have been timed well too. Some of the key clubs in the Championship have been scaling back their spending due to Financial Fair Play issues, allowing other clubs to close the gap. Brentford have pulled off some decent business, as have Bristol City, for example.
The chance was there for North End to have a go. The season ended poorly, but the 12-game unbeaten run was a glimpse of North End’s quality, and Neil’s new deal – snubbing West Bromwich Albion – had fans hoping for an ambitious summer window, for once.
Neil laid out his plans early. All the way back in April, he told the LEP that he wanted ‘experience’ in his squad. Neil felt North End had a strong clutch of young players, but needed players around 24 to 25, believing they could bring more know-how to the squad.
MORE PRESTON STORIES
“We have got the basis of a very good squad and we need to top that up, improve it. I want us to take the next step forward, push on and show our promise,” – Alex Neil, May 2019.
North End fans were told to be patient, as deals for players of that age would take a little longer. That was all well and good, and the first deal was actually decent. Patrick Bauer arrived from Charlton Athletic in June, having just won promotion from League One. The German defender has played in the Championship before, he’s of a good age at 26, he’s a leader, he’s dominant in the air, and he came for free.
Sadly, things went quiet from there. North End made moves for Manchester City goalkeeper Aro Muric and released QPR left back Jake Bidwell. Nottingham Forest and Swansea City beat us to those deals respectively.
Another hit came early in July when Callum Robinson left the club. His £8million move to Sheffield United saw North End take in £7million, after Aston Villa took their cut from a sell-on clause. The LEP then reported that bringing in that money would spark incoming deals.
In almost a month since that move, only three incoming deals were done – and only one was a cash signing. David Nugent returned on a free transfer last month, and just hours before the start of the season, winger Andre Green came in on loan from Villa, and midfielder Tom Bayliss joined in a seven-figure switch from Coventry City.
At the same time, North End had been chasing other signature. We noted last week that goalkeeper Fraser Forster, left back Max Lowe and striker Fraizer Campbell were on the radar too, to fill the remaining problematic areas in Neil’s squad. All three were deemed too expensive, either in terms of wages or transfer fee.
Last week, Neil made his intentions clear. The LEP carried quotes from Neil in which he said he would be disappointed if his squad wasn’t strengthened. This was before landing Green and Bayliss, but more was needed.
Today’s deadline passed at 5pm, and that was that. North End confirmed their business was done, just a week since Neil suggested the squad is weaker than last season’s.
North End’s business isn’t just disappointing; it’s bordering on irresponsible. Left back Josh Earl has been loaned out to Bolton, presumably with a replacement wanted. Once the move for Lowe fell through, that was seemingly the end of the attempts to strengthen there. Today, Neil was forced to suggest that right backs Darnell Fisher and Joe Rafferty can cover there.
What kind of Championship team, with any sort of top six aspirations, leaves themselves with one left back by agreeing a deal to send out their backup just days before the deadline? It’s rank mismanagement to leave Neil this short, and whilst Preston have taken steps to help Bolton in their plight, this is way too far.
There is no striker in the squad that Neil appears to fancy, and no goalkeeper he loves either. Key positions at either end of the pitch are short of quality, despite making moves for players in those positions over the course of the summer.
Coming out of the transfer window with one cash signing having sold top scorer Robinson is unacceptable. Neil wanted players like Brad Potts, players with games under their belt and potential to tap into. Bauer fits that bill, but Nugent’s best days are behind him and Green is an unproven, temporary solution to Robinson’s exit.
Bayliss is a fine addition both for now and for the future, but these additions just aren’t enough. Neil has been hamstrung badly, and whilst we can’t say promises were broken when he signed his contract, given that we don’t know what he was promised, you do have to wonder.
Neil has made noises all summer about wanting experienced players; to ramp up the level of quality in the squad. Yes, it’s great that Billy Bodin and Josh Harrop are back, but please stop calling them ‘like new signings’. Neil wanted additional quality in the side, and he hasn’t really got it.
This squad finished 14th last season. You can point to some factors that explain that; an unprecedented injury crisis ravaged the season, and North End clearly appeared to have downed tools towards the end of the campaign. However, we were 13 points off the top six, a year after finishing just two points adrift.
What part of selling the club’s top scorer for £7million and reinvesting about a fourth of that says playoff push? We have eight central midfield players and one left back. It’s a woefully balanced squad, and nothing North End have done this summer points to bridging the gap to the top six.
Neil himself feels North End are weaker than last season, but there’s another problem. Here’s the transfer business of every team who finished below Preston last season. There’s been huge money spent on reinforcements, experience and potential added across the board, with almost all teams looking stronger than they did in May.
Millwall: Connor Mahoney signed for £1m, Championship experience landed with Bartosz Bialkowski, Frank Fielding, Luke Steele, Matt Smith, Alex Pearce and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson.
QPR: Striker Jordan Hugill and Nahki Wells both signed on loan. Experienced added with Marc Pugh, Geoff Cameron and Yoann Barbet. Not big spenders, but those two strikers would both start for North End.
Wigan: £3m on winger Jamal Lowe and £3m on striker Kieffer Moore, £2m on left back Antonee Robinson. Experienced goalkeeper signed in David Marshall. How all four of those could improve this North End side. Additional signings Joe Williams, Lewis Macleod and Tom Pearce have some Championship experience and potential.
Stoke: £4m on Tommy Smith, £2m on Liam Lindsay. Impressive work on free transfers with Adam Davies, Stephen Ward, Jordan Cousins, Nick Powell and Lee Gregory, and fine loan work with Scott Hogan, Mark Duffy and Cameron Carter-Vickers.
Blackburn Rovers: £5m on striker Sam Gallagher. Impressive loans in Christian Walton and Tosin Adarabioyo, experienced freebies with Bradley Johnson and Stewart Downing. They’ve just added Greg Cunningham too, to make matters worse.
Some of those signings would have been perfect for North End. We’re not going to agree deals like Joao, Puscas or Sunjic, but after selling Robinson for £7million, it’s reasonable to expect some reinforcements, such as Wigan new boy Lowe. In fact, with an experienced goalkeeper, an exciting left back, a speedy winger and an athletic centre forward, Wigan have enjoyed the summer North End wanted. Blackburn also added a goalkeeper, a left back and a striker.
Competing with certain clubs in this division is tough, but we’re now lagging way behind both Blackburn and Wigan in the transfer market. That’s a bitter pill to swallow given the similar stature of both clubs, and given that they’ve funded those deals without having to sell their top scorer.
So, what next? Neil has every right to be furious, and he seemed less-than-ecstatic in his press conference today. He now has to make do with what he has until January, barring any unexpected free agent signings.
Neil is unlikely to be going anywhere soon after signing that new deal, but judging by his comments this summer, he’s been let down. The club quite simply doesn’t share the same ambition as the Scot, and that could be a problem down the line.
Ben Davies, Ben Pearson and Alan Browne will have just a year left on their deals next summer. Without promotion – and let’s be honest, nothing about Preston’s summer adds up to a promotion push – they will likely be sold, just like Robinson was, and Cunningham before him, and Hugill before him. This team, that had so much potential under Neil back in 2018, is falling apart one by one.
The assets are slowly leaving, and whilst a couple have been brought in – like Jordan Storey and Bayliss – it’s understandable that fans would point towards asset stripping here. Multi-millionaire Trevor Hemmings has put plenty of money to keep the club going, but with players being sold – and little being reinvested whilst those around us are strengthening – fears are rising that the star players will keep being sold until Hemmings can get is money back and sell the club on.
Hemmings’ contribution to saving the club back in 2010 is hugely appreciated. He stepped in at a time of financial ruin, helped consolidate the club and get it back to where it was. Now though, we’re standing still. We’re no longer moving forward when rival clubs are, and complacency from fans about ‘we’ll be fine’ can result in trouble.
Preston likely won’t be in relegation trouble this season, but we thought that last summer too, and before an upturn in form in 2019, we weren’t exactly safe. That links into another part of the problem. North End never invest when riding high, instead doing what appears to be the bare minimum. Yet when relegation is a threat, the money comes out. See: January 2008 and January 2019. To put it simply; the fear of relegation is greater than the desire to go up.
The lack of ambition is permeating the fanbase now, with too many happy to go along with the ‘we’ll be fine’ mantra, or justifying a lack of spending by pointing to Bolton’s troubles. That’s not the attitude of a play-off side, and not why we appointed a manager with a Championship promotion on his CV.
We’re not painting ‘Hemmings Out’ on our bedsheets here, as he’s kept us going for years now, when nobody else would. But the passing of today’s deadline has resulted in disillusion. North End have no ambition, no intent, no plans of reaching the Premier League – despite Hemmings saying that’s what he wanted after returning to the Championship in 2015.
Today’s outpouring of frustration was not down to panic because it was deadline day. It was not the result of losing the first game of the season. It was widespread fear that Preston have sold themselves – and their manager – well short of what’s required to challenge in the Championship.
Maybe Neil can salvage something from this situation, but a summer that initially promised so much has ended in disappointment. With a lack of reinvestment, a lack of communication, no new training ground and star players being offloaded, it’s hard to get excited about Preston right now – and this summer’s window has ended hope for many of a Premier League push whilst Hemmings is at the helm.