The 2018-19 Championship season is over, at least as far as Preston are concerned. In truth, North End have been playing like it’s been over for weeks now.
The 3-0 defeat at Brentford this afternoon capped off a dismal run of form since the March international break. With four points from the last eight games, North End have gone from the cusp of the playoffs to a bottom half finish.
There’s much for Alex Neil to ponder. His future is secure, but he may be considering big changes this summer. He’s made reference to wanting more experience, but that will require some considerable spending.
Trevor Hemmings may well back the Scot with reinforcements, just as he did in January. With that in mind, here are some positions Neil needs to target in the summer transfer window…
Jordan Storey and Ben Davies have impressed in 2019, and will have bright futures. Yet we’d be lying to ourselves if we saw them as infallible. Physical strikers can often have their way with the young duo, and there’s real uncertainty at the back. Tom Clarke and Paul Huntington have barely featured since the turn of year. Now in their 30’s, do they still have roles at Deepdale? Ideally, North End would be able to bring in a defender with real height and aerial ability to deal with target men, especially with Huntington regressing. The age range of 25-28 should be the aim here, bringing in experience but also enough juice in the tank to cope with a Championship campaign. Bringing in a real, proven veteran in his 30’s may not be the worst idea though, if it’s the right player.
Andrew Hughes really kicked on in 2019, and his importance to the team was summed up after his injury. North End won just once without the Welshman, and his absence was really felt. Josh Earl desperately needs a loan move, and Darnell Fisher shouldn’t be seen as a solution if Hughes is out. Another left back has to be targeted this summer. There’s obviously a few of avenues North End can go down; a Premier League loanee whilst Earl is out on loan would make some sense. Landing a player with Championship experience on the cheap – Jake Bidwell springs to mind – to compete with Hughes would give North End great depth, but leave us with a tough decision going forward. A veteran Championship ace willing to sign a one-year deal to backup Hughes could also work, but maybe harder to lure. No matter which avenue North End pursue, a left back is a must.
This is such a difficult position to evaluate. On paper, the options are good; Ben Pearson, Ryan Ledson, Paul Gallagher, Daniel Johnson, Alan Browne, Brad Potts and even a returning Josh Harrop. They can all fit into the 4-1-4-1 system Neil has used in 2019, whilst youngsters Jack Baxter and Adam O’Reilly are coming through. Yet Pearson and Ledson are suspended way too often, and too much is placed on a nearly-35-year-old Gallagher. Johnson’s inconsistency is maddening, Browne and Potts have endured injury woes in 2019, and Harrop is just back from eight months out. In truth, he wasn’t really having a huge impact before that. Again, another experienced option may be the best way forward here, even if it’s a player in their 30’s available for free. Think Craig Bryson, James Morrison, Chris Brunt or, dare I say it, Charlie Adam. None of them are star additions, and I wouldn’t claim them to be so. But any midfielder coming in may have to settle for a bit-part role, and that may suit them at this stage of their careers.
It’s probably safe to say that Callum Robinson is on his way out this summer. With his contract having just a year to run, it seems likely that North End will cash in now. Tom Barkhuizen is in a similar situation, Billy Bodin is just coming back from nearly a year out and Lukas Nmecha will return to Manchester City. It’s imperative that, despite landing Josh Ginnelly in January, North End bring in at least one more winger this summer. Without Barkhuizen, our lack of true speed is frightening, and it must be rectified. Mansfield Town’s CJ Hamilton was looked at in January and continues to shine, and brings that blistering pace that we often lack, whilst having the potential of a usual North End lower league signing.
North End’s striking options are in a bizarre place. Jayden Stockley appears to be a good target man, but Neil’s tendency to substitute him early is a concern. Seani Maguire doesn’t look the same player since returning from injury, and Louis Moult is another player who fits in the ‘decent, but not great’ category. Maguire will probably get another chance to shine, but Moult may not. Again, speed – or at least good movement – is needed in attack, and it’s an area North End may struggle in. Even bang average strikers like Will Grigg are going for £4million in this market. Signing a player who can play the lone frontman role whilst having a turn of pace won’t be easy on our budget, but it’s a must if we’re to really challenge the top six.
It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see North End target a true first-choice goalkeeper, especially with Declan Rudd entering the final year of his contract. Those five areas look to be the most important for now though, and Preston must be clever this summer after a disappointing end to the season.