After four years in League One in some rather difficult times, Preston North End secured a return to the second tier of English football with an emphatic 4-0 win over Swindon Town in the play-final in 2015. Preston fans felt that the Championship was the least they deserved, and The Lilywhites are now in their eight consecutive season at this level.
Of course the squad has changed a lot in those seven years, and we are onto our fourth permanent manager in that time as well. As we look back on the starting eleven who took to the field to face Middlesbrough on 9th August 2015, has the club improved in those seven years or taken a step back?
Whilst the game was 0-0 Simon Grayson’s team at the time certainly showed they would be no pushovers that year, and a relegation battle didn’t seem to be on the cards. Indeed they were well clear of the bottom three, going on to finish the season in a very respectable 11th place.
Arguably the best goalkeeper if not player full stop we have seen adorn the colours of Preston North End in the last seven years. This was his first and only season in the Championship and fans quickly saw the goalkeeper was set to have a bright future in the game. His shot stopping was great, and his passing was exceptional. At times it was like having Andrea Pirlo in net. He was called back by Sunderland halfway through the season and then 18 months later he made his England debut and became the most expensive British goalkeeper of all time. Pickford is likely to head into his second World Cup as England’s number one later this year.
Signed on loan from Sheffield Wednesday, the full-back filled a void for Preston North End without setting the world alight. The former Manchester United player made 32 appearances for PNE that season and signed a permanent deal next summer. A three-year-deal seemed a bit much at the time and would only play 20 games the next season. After spells at Scunthorpe United and Maastricht in Holland on loan, Vermijl now plays in the third division in Belgium for Thes Sport.
One of the players who is still at the club today, made his debut back in 2015. Signed from Bristol City, Cunningham was quickly taken to by fans. Equally adept at defending as getting forward and whipping balls into the box, Greg became one of the first names on the teamsheet in that season, Eventually becoming club captain, his form saw him secure a move to Cardiff City in 2018. Injuries hampered the Irishman however, and after minimal games for Cardiff and a loan spell at Blackburn Rovers curtailed by another injury Cunningham returned to North End in January 2021. The 31 year-old is one of the more experienced heads in the squad and this season finds himself as an understudy to Andrew Hughes in the left centre back position.
Preston could rely on a solid centre-back group this season despite limited Championship experience amongst them. Clarke was club captain, and his heart on the sleeve performances made him a fan favourite. The epitome of the Simon Grayson side, Clarke led the team well, and ensured the defence was always solid throughout the season. Super Tommy Clarke has spent the last two seasons with Salford City, Fleetwood Town, and current club Halifax Town.
Much the same as above. Huntington completed a remarkable turnaround the season before when it looked like he may move on from the club, he went on to score some huge goals for Preston on their way to promotion including one at Wembley itself. Huntington was part of the Preston squad for all of the last seven years in the Championship, and was a model professional and captain at times too. Loved by the club, he departed in an emotional farewell at the end of last season, and is now with hometown club Carlisle United.
The third of the dependable centre-backs that season was Bailey Wright. With the club from the age of 16, he had established himself as a key player in League One. He continued his form into the Championship and it was tough to see him make what seemed like a sideways move to Bristol City in 2017. The Robins were often on the end of heavy defeats to Preston during his time there, and injuries didn’t help the Australian. He has been part of the Sunderland team since 2020 and is back in the Championship this season.
Preston lined up with a midfield three on that day, and all three have captained the club at some stage of their career. One of Graham Westley’s better signings in the League One days, Welsh was an important part of the midfield as he broke up the play and allowed the more creative players to showcase their talents and turn defence into attack. After 26 games this season, his Preston career fizzled out before spells with Grimsby Town, Atherton Collieries, and Stafford Rangers. Now back at Preston as a Lead Development Phase Coach.
It’s crazy to think how long DJ has been at the club. Heading into his ninth season with the club now after joining from Aston Villa in January 2015. His goals helped get Preston over the line in gaining promotion from League One and he is still just as important for the team now. The Jamaican has scored over 50 goals for the club, and is captain when Alan Browne (on the bench on this day) is absent. It looked as if the 29-year-old could have been tempted by a move to Glasgow Rangers at the start of 2021 but he extended his contract. However that enters it’s final year now, and the club will surely look to extend it once again, as he is key to how Ryan Lowe’s team plays.
Another Preston North End stalwart over the last decade is Paul Gallagher. Instrumental in the club’s promotion from League One and also in the Championship too. A huge asset from dead ball situations, Gallagher’s goals and assists were always crucial to any season under any manager. Gally ended up playing 313 games for the club before joining the backroom staff. A spell in net after a red card to Chris Maxwell and keeping a clean sheet in the process endeared him to Preston fans even more, and was later voted as the player of the decade (2010-2019).
Another club legend of recent times is Joe Garner. The Preston fan’s North End career got off to a slow start, but he found his feet a few months into the 2013-14 season, going on to score one of the greatest goals seen at Deepdale since the turn of the millennium. The goal in the play-offs against Rotherham United still gives me goosebumps and for many will be a hero of those times, mainly thanks 51 goals scored between 2013 and 2015 at League One level. In the Championship goals were harder to come by, scoring six in this season before a move to Glasgow Rangers broke many a heart. Since then he has been a battering ram for Ipswich Town, Wigan Athletic and current club Fleetwood Town whilst also scoring a few in the process. He did enjoy a six month spell in Cyprus as well under Mick McCarthy for APOEL Nicosia where he scored eight goals in 11 league games including a hat-trick.
Signed on loan from Manchester United, Will Keane arrived highly rated after other spells at this level with Wigan Athletic, Queens Park Rangers, and Sheffield Wednesday. Despite impressing in his first game against Boro, and scoring in the away game to Burnley, he only scored one other goal and his career stuttered somewhat in the years after. Goals were hard to come by at Hull City and Ipswich Town before he found his feet at Wigan in League One. 27 goals last season helped them gain promotion and also led to him getting four caps for Republic Of Ireland.