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Feature: Provident North End...

Preston’s prestigious past has inspired and not hindered the club’s latest crop of contenders and, in Alex Neil, the Lilywhites have a manager with the foresight to take them to the top.

5 June 2020

For some football Clubs, history is what defines them. For some, it determines expectations and for others it serves as the ultimate motivation. For Preston North End, a club with a story quite different to any other, history is serving as a source of pride, one which those in Lancashire are hoping to provide for the next generation.

Alan Kelly; Bill Shankly; Sir Tom Finney. Just a few of the famous names and faces that still adorn the club’s Deepdale home. Reminders of the legendary ‘Invincibles’ of 1888/89 – the team which, to this day, remain the only one to have won the league and FA Cup double without defeat – are ten a penny too. It’s a place brimming with incredible memories, and one in which the country’s football museum stood for almost a decade.

To this day, stories are told of one of the Football League’s founding members, stories racked up over 139 years and thousands of fixtures.

Today though, a new one is in the process of being written by the club’s sapient Scotsman, Alex Neil, whose near three-year tenure as manager has so far brought an optimism that the next chapter in Preston’s story could be up there with the best.

In November 2019, the EFL spoke exclusively to Alex Neil about the football club who, at the time of writing, were flying in the league standings.

Now with nine games still to play, North End occupy sixth place and the final Play-Off spot in an incredibly tight Championship table. Four points off 4th and 27 points still to play for, it would be difficult not to get carried away, wouldn’t it?

“We know we’re on the cusp of something special here,” he says, speaking to the EFL earlier this season. “The history of this club of course makes it a special one, and I think history is there to be re-written.

“We have a rich history here at Preston. People always talk about ‘The Invincibles’ and the team that went unbeaten in the league; we’ve got Sir Tom Finney in our history too, who’s a worldwide star at the club.

“We’re coming up to our 5,000th league game and will be the first club to reach that milestone. Of the original League Clubs I think we’re one of only three teams to have not played in the Premier League. So I think everybody understands the magnitude of what could be achieved this season.

“I think that, for the future of this club, we need to build on all of that and make new history, because if you keep talking about the past it means nothing is happening in the present. I think naturally we have to embrace that history; we’ve got to remember it because it’s part of the club but we’ve got to look forward at the same time.”

What Neil has built to date is quite remarkable. His is a squad of young, hungry players with the ability to score and entertain, one which means that Northenders are cheering on real promotion contenders. And while the list of past marquee players often appears never-ending at the club, it’s emerging talents plucked from lower divisions - including the likes of defender Joe Rafferty and striker Jayden Stockley - that are helping make a mark.

Indeed, on resumption of the 2019/20 campaign later this month, the club will become the first to reach 5,000 league games, and could well prove a vital moment in their push towards promotion. For those involved with the club in the modern day, this would be as good a time as any to begin a new legacy.

“I think for Preston to get to the Premier League and achieve that promotion, it would be one of the great stories in modern-day football,” Neil adds. “Based on the history that we’ve got and the budget that we work off, it would be a huge success story.

“We’re still a long way away from that, but what we have shown is our credentials and the fact that we can compete with any team. If we can sustain the challenge, then anything is possible. As a fan, as a player and as a manager, you’re involved in football for moments like promotions and trophy wins. Those are the moments that you look back on with pride and no-one can ever take them away from you – they’re priceless.

“To be honest, where we are now has been two years in the making, both from a first-team perspective and a club perspective. But the one thing about us is, if we don’t do it this year, it doesn’t stop the journey. We will keep going.”

The changes have been far from wholesale, either. Preston finished the 2018/19 season in 14th place with much the same group of players, 13 points adrift of the Play-Off places and 21 above the relegation zone. Comfortably mid-table.

In the end, it was one of Neil’s former Clubs, Norwich City, who went up as champions, just four years after the man himself had guided them to the top flight.

“One thing I do think has changed at the club in the last two seasons is that three years ago when I arrived, I think Preston North End as a club was happy being in the Championship, mentality-wise. I think they were happy to compete but that dynamic has completely changed,” he says.

“Everyone from the very top to the bottom is striving for better and striving for more. We all really want to push the limits and see how far we can take this club. Ultimately, in the long run, we do want to get promoted. If you don’t set yourself those targets and high ambitions then what’s the point?

“I’ve been managing for seven or eight years now. When I was at Hamilton, we were down at the bottom end of the Championship which, for the squad we had, wasn’t good enough at the time. We did get promoted, though, and that was much more of a short-term vision and getting the outcome that we wanted.

“Norwich was the same. I went there when they were tenth in the Championship, but they wanted promotion that season and we did manage to achieve that in the end – so again that was a short-term target that we did achieve.

“That’s where Preston North End has been a little bit different for me. This has been two or three years in the making to get to where we are now, whereas previously I’ve only had a matter of months, or a season.”

In many ways, modern-day football is a different game to the one played so beautifully by the likes of Preston-born Sir Tom Finney, who is often regarded as one of North End and England’s greatest-ever players. The lessons left behind by the Lilywhites’ former heroes though are still pertinent to this day.

For Preston’s current manager, if the club is to be promoted this season, or indeed in the seasons to come, it will be the old-fashioned values instilled at the club all those years ago that will see them over the line.

“We’ve got a real bond and a real team spirit, where people just understand each other and that’s taken us a long, long way. That’s something that can’t be underestimated. I suppose it’s a culture and a philosophy that we have here at Preston.

“One thing about our lads is they’ve all had to work hard for everything that they’ve got so far and that continual work to keep striving for progress is what makes us who we are and keeps us where we are. That’s something we like to pride ourselves on.

“If you do your work well and you get good lads who are good players that have the right attitudes and want to work, then a lot can be achieved. As a coach or a manager, the one thing you always want is to leave every game and every training session knowing the lads have given you everything. You can’t ask for much more than that.

“There may be some days when we aren’t good enough, there may be some days when things don’t work, but at least we all know when looking at each other that we’ve done our very best every day. If you can do that, I think there’s a purity about it. Understanding, determination and quality are a real recipe for success.”

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