Preston North End had a season full of ups and downs with a change of manager and an overhaul of their squad. Ste Thomas takes a look back on another season in League One.
It’s with a great sense of déjà vu that I write about this season. It’s been another year of peaks and troughs with yet another change of manager and a huge variety of players coming in and out of the squad. Just like last season, we enter the next with a sense of hope and belief that we might re-enter the Championship.
Former manager Graham Westley will remain a hugely controversial figure. He is undoubtedly arrogant and his man-management skills have been questioned. He was described by many PNE supporters as “a nutter” or “a headcase”. The best comparison comes in the figure of Paolo Di Canio. You could, arguably, apply all the same attributes to him, but these types of character become hugely popular if they experience success. Another good example is José Mourinho, though the Madrid fans don’t appear to have warmed to him even now.
At the beginning of the season, the future seemed rosy under Graham Westley. Early convincing wins over Championship sides Huddersfield and Crystal Palace gave the largely new squad huge belief. There were also big 4-1 wins over Swindon, where Paolo Di Canio and keeper Wes Foderingham had an hilarious falling out, and Stevenage, the former and future club of Westley.
As a result of this period of success, the fans finally began to warm to Westley. At the end of last season, the chant was “f**k Graham Westley, we’re here for Sir Tom”, a nod to the birthday of PNE legend Sir Tom Finney. This had now changed to “Oh Graham Westley, he’ll text who he wants”, a reference to the stories that he had named his debut first team and told players they were transfer listed, via text. As with the earlier example, the controversial nature of the manager was creating extra passion amongst sections of fans who just want an interesting character in what is often a profession populated by dullards.
The turning point of the season was seemingly the 0-0 draw at home to Notts County. It was a match where the passion of the fans almost turned ugly after injuries to two key players and a cynical style of football from the away team. At full-time, Lee Hughes, convicted for causing death by dangerous driving in 2004, was subjected to chants of “murderer”, to which he responded with a grin. Hearing Scott Laird’s leg snap from Row 25 is not something I will forget anytime soon.
From there, Graham Westley’s tenure went rapidly down hill. From that match in November until his sacking, Preston North End won once, drew four times, and lost five times in the league. The excuses and team-selections of Westley in this period were questionable, with best available left-back David Buchanan mysteriously left out of the squad for untested youth player Ben Davies. Westley was sacked under huge pressure from a crowd that didn’t help the confidence of the squad, regularly chanting “how sh*t must you be, we’re winning at home” if the team went ahead in a home match. After the defeat to Yeovil in February, Westley said he felt “relieved” because he would never have walked away from the job.
A member of the backroom staff was given the caretakers job in John Dreyer. He inspired the team to a 2-0 win over league leaders Bournemouth before handing the reigns to hugely successful League One manager Simon Grayson, who kept Dreyer on in order to learn quickly about the strengths and weaknesses of the playing squad. Although the playing style of Grayson is the more direct style usually frowned upon my many fans, the results he has gotten cannot be argued with. Due to the marmite nature of the former manager, and these results, the fans have immediately gotten behind Grayson.
The home form of Grayson has been particularly promising. Since he took over, Preston has won four and drawn two, conceding just one goal in the process – the result of a wayward back-pass from much-maligned former club captain John Mousinho. The form and effort of Mousinho has been in question for some time, and Grayson had to step in and ask the fans to get off his back in what has been an injury-riddled season. It is debatable whether or not he would be getting the same reception, if not for his relationship with the former manager Graham Westley, who has now returned to Stevenage.
There are several reasons cited for the turnaround in form. The first is the selection of a consistent back five – something which wasn’t happening in the early half of the season. The group of Rudd, Connolly, Huntington, Wright and Buchanan has been exceptional, resulting in Preston conceding only six goals since February and Huntington being nominated for the League 1 Player of the Month Award.
Another key point is in the confidence of the youth players. Will Hayhurst has looked a completely different player since Grayson’s appointment, developing the confidence to take the ball past a player, and scoring several goals. Jeffrey Monakana has also turned his game around, and although he can still be frustrating, is far more consistent now than he ever was in the early part of the season.
All of this has resulted in Preston becoming favourites for promotion next year. The clubs’ form since Grayson arrived has been that which averages third place over the course of a season. A few signings and streamlining of the squad should leave us in a strong position to return to the Championship next season. Westley built the foundations strong for Grayson to achieve success, so when he returns next season with Stevenage, I hope he receives a warm reception from at least some of the home supporters.
So how will North End shape up next season? Will they regain their Championship place at the third time of asking? Let us know below…