There was a time when Tom Barkhuizen was the shiny new toy at Deepdale.
Snapped up from Morecambe in January 2017, Barkhuizen was handed brief cameos before being unleashed by Simon Grayson.
His run of six goals in six games quickly made him a fan favourite. Fans were dazzled by his blistering pace, with defenders clearly terrified of facing him.
The 25-year-old has remained hugely productive ever since. Barkhuizen enjoyed a fine campaign last season with eight goals and seven assists, whilst he has six league goals this term.
And yet it feels like fans are viewing Barkhuizen without the same glimmer or shine from two years ago. Players who have joined more recently, such as Seani Maguire, Brad Potts and Jordan Storey are bigger fan favourites now. Even players at a similar standard two years ago – think Alan Browne or Callum Robinson – have overtaken him.
Barkhuizen has received major criticism over the last 18 months, sparking a number of his ‘hands cupped to ears’ celebrations. He’s clearly a little frustrated with the stick he gets, and there’s certainly an argument that it’s harsh treatment.
Yes, Barkhuizen can be frustrating. For all his raw talent, he can be maddeningly wasteful, and he often appears to lack the confidence in his own ability. Yet the last two games against Bolton Wanderers and Norwich City have summed up Barkhuizen’s importance, and why Alex Neil loves him.
At Bolton, Barkhuizen’s pace ruined Jonathan Grounds, and he ended up with a goal and an assist. It could have been even more having squandered two opportunities, but a goal and an assist was a fine day’s work. Against Norwich, he again showcased his pace with a driving run before teeing up Brad Potts to hit the bar.
Simply put, nobody else in the Preston squad can match what Barkhuizen brings. His blistering speed and work rate have made him a Neil favourite, and he would be very, very difficult to replace. And that should be something on the minds of Preston fans right now.
That’s because Barkhuizen’s current contract expires in 2020, meaning he is heading towards the final year of his deal. There is a very real chance that North End may have to sell Barkhuizen this summer if they can’t agree a new contract.
Some may think that Barkhuizen can be cashed in on to a big-spending Championship team, but this smacks of the old adage that you don’t know what you’ve got, until it’s gone.
Barkhuizen may not be the most complete or even consistent performer, but his pace and effort and goal record make him different to anything else in Alex Neil’s squad. Barkhuizen has become arguably the most under-appreciated player in this Preston squad, and fans should show him some love – before he believes the grass is greener elsewhere.