With Preston in action against Charlton Athletic today, Saturday was supposed to be a quiet one. Players and fans were travelling down to London, so it should have been a time for everyone to relax and watch the Saturday scores come through.
Sadly, Stoke City seemingly had other ideas. Before Preston have even kicked a ball this weekend, we’ve been through all manner of emotions.
The Potters sacked boss Nathan Jones on Friday, and North End fans have to face another saga over Alex Neil. Bookmakers quickly made him the favourite for the Stoke job. Hours later, the Stoke Sentinel reported that Stoke had made contact with Preston about a move for Neil. They also suggested that Neil saw Stoke as a better ‘long-term bet’ for his career.
We’ve been here before, with other managers and with Neil himself. It’s only back in April that West Brom wanted him, only for Neil to sign a new three-year deal with Preston. This instance has become a little more ugly though.
The West Brom saga did affect Preston’s results at the back end of last season, as the issue was left to run and run for too long – including beyond a 4-1 thrashing at the Baggies. This time, Preston weren’t going to be messed around.
TalkSPORT claimed that Neil was set to be announced as Stoke manager; something Preston not only vehemently denied, but also offered two strong retorts to. Because the news had been leaked to the press – presumably by a Stoke source to force Preston’s hand – North End refused to do any business with the Potters, and added that they had been reported to the EFL for an illegal approach to Neil.
That didn’t quite seem like the end of it, especially with bookies still having him at around 1/8 for the job, but a second Preston statement of the day confirmed what fans wanted to hear; Neil had reaffirmed his commitment to the club and to the contract he signed in April, so wasn’t moving anywhere.
Praise for Preston
North End deserve huge credit for Saturday’s stance. They appear to have learned from the mess in April, and dealt with this swiftly and effectively. They made it publicly clear that they would not be dealing with Stoke, were taking the strongest possible action against their approach and then confirmed Neil’s stance by the end of the day.
No letting the situation drag on, no being bullied by a so-called ‘bigger club’. Preston made their intentions clear, stuck to their guns, and had the situation done and dusted within hours.
Now the focus turns to today’s key trip to Charlton. A win would take Preston, even if only briefly, to the top of the Championship table. What a moment it would be, to see North End finish the weekend top of the table after Neil once again decided to stay put. Oh, and Stoke will be desperately trying to haul themselves off the bottom of the table on Monday.
So, what next?
Sadly, it seems like this sort of thing is going to crop up regularly. Clubs love young managers with promotions on their CV, Premier League experience, a record of developing young players, a philosophy that pushes for high-energy football and the ability to work on a budget whilst getting great results. Sadly, they do not grow on trees.
Neil, at 38, is a rare breed. Preston are so lucky to have him, as one day, a club may well be able to prise him away from Deepdale. That – combined with the likes of Ben Davies and Ben Pearson approaching the final 18 months of their contracts – really does make this feel like a big season. One big push to try and finally reach the Premier League, before the team and its setup potentially breaks up.
Whenever Neil does go, it should be to a club that really progresses his career again. Rebuilding his reputation after his Norwich sacking, to sit so close to the top of the table only to leave for the bottom side in the division isn’t that.
It’s not the right move, it’s not the right time, and whilst the media may overlook Preston, Neil isn’t swapping us for any offer that comes his way. North End stuck by him in the struggles last season, and he’s stuck with us despite big interest. Hopefully, we’ll remember his loyalty as a person as much as his quality as a manager.
Now, let’s forget all the worries and panic that his weekend has caused, and hope to end on a high with a win today.