There's no question that March was the month in which Tom Barkhuizen's Preston North End career kicked off, and in impressive style.
The winger officially signed for the Lilywhites on 1st January, but having spent a couple of months with the squad prior to that, he had settled into the squad nicely.
A few substitute appearances followed as the 23-year-old built up his match fitness and got to grips with Championship football once again.
When his first start came against Fulham on 4th March, he was out to impress and he certainly did that. Barkhuizen went onto score five goals and create another one in his four games in March, making it a month to remember for the former Morecambe man.
Speaking of the month, PNE's No.29 certainly didn't see it coming, he said: "To go from not really being involved to a couple of sub appearances last month, it’s been really good. A really good March for me and hopefully there’s more to come for the last eight games of the season.
"Forward players will always be judged on goals and assists and thankfully it’s been my turn to chip in with a few this month. I think if you look at the whole season, it’s been spread out quite a lot. But it’s obviously really nice from a personal point of view to be getting on the scoresheet in four games in a row."
Barkhuizen is one of a number of attacking players who have flourished under manager Simon Grayson, who gives his forward players the freedom to express themselves in the final third.
"It’s great because you know that if you lose the ball you’re not going to get shouted and screamed at." Tom continued.
"I’ve been at clubs before where you lose the ball in the final third and people are shouting and things like that, whereas the gaffer says ‘it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re trying something’ or ‘as long as you try and win it back afterwards and you’re not throwing your arms up in the air or walking back’ and things like that.
"So it gives the likes of me, Geads [Aiden McGeady] and Daryl [Horgan] and Robbo [Callum Robinson], people like that who want to go and express themselves, it gives us a licence to go and pretty much do what we want in the final third – as long as we get back into a good shape when we lose it, which I think is pretty much the norm at any club. So yeah it’s really good.
It's not the first time Barkhuizen has graced the Championship, but after a few years away, the Blackpool Academy graduate feels he is getting to grips with the league again, but admits the three games in a week from making his starting debut was tough physically.
"I think going from League Two, it’s a lot more physical, a lot more long balls and things like that. I think the sub appearances helped me, getting 20 minutes here and there, when the games were stretched out and it allowed me to play to my strengths and get us up the pitch and things like that. But I’m just really enjoying being back at a level where I think I can play at and thankfully at the moment it’s all going really well.
"It’s been tough on my legs. I came off with cramp against Reading because that was the third game in a week – because you can do as much training as you want, or playing as many reserve games as you want – it’s never the same tempo, it’s never the same on the legs.
"I think because I’m scoring, the adrenaline is still pumping from game to game, so that’s kind of helped me get through. Obviously on Saturday, when I moved to wing-back, it was a different challenge having to get up and down, things like that. But like I said I’m just really enjoying playing at the moment, whether it’s up front or out wide or wherever, I just want to keep my place in the team and hopefully I can do that."
Barkhuizen benefited from a few months training with the squad before officially signing for the club at the turn of the year, and admits that it helped in the step up to the second tier of English football.
"It was massive. It really helped me, it’s helped me make the step up and it’s made it a lot easier getting used to the tempo of the play and you don’t get as much time on the ball and things like that. But I think the main thing, it’s just given me confidence to show that I can play at this level and I feel like I’ve earned my place in the team because I’ve done well off the bench and things like that. Confidence is a massive part of my game and at the moment it’s running high and hopefully, it can keep going."
Having played as a forward, out wide and as a wing back in recent games, Barkhuizen has shown his versatility in the side, something that is beneficial to both the player and the manager.
"Yeah it’s another string to my bow. It’s definitely not a bad thing. I think certain players get moved, even at the top clubs you see certain players playing in loads of different positions and I think if the manager asks me I would always say ‘I prefer to play out wide or off the big man’, but I’m happy to do the job as a wing-back or even as a full-back if we were desperate. So as long as I’m on the pitch, I don’t really care where I’m put in."
The focus for the squad now turns to the final eight games of the season, with just five points separating the Lilywhites from the Play-Off places, and Barkhuizen feels the pressure is more on the teams around them.
"We’ve obviously got to go to a few of the teams that are up there which will be a difficult challenge, but like I’ve said in previous interviews, the pressure is more on them. We’re playing without fear at the moment.
"I’m sure at the start of the season, staying in the league was probably the main priority and we’ve done that comfortably. If we finish in the top ten then it’s a really good season, it’s improved on last year again.
"I’m sure the fans would be happy with that. But if we can keep this little run going, maybe improve our away form a little bit, then who knows? We might sneak in there, because teams seem to be getting a little bit nervous at the moment, the likes of Reading, who came here, and Sheffield Wednesday seem to have gone off the boil a little bit. So we’ll just see what happens."
Throughout the season, North End have competed with teams with much bigger budgets, and Tom feels a lot of that is down to the team spirit in the dressing room, and that hard work can't always be replaced by spending money on players.
"Yeah I think it shows that togetherness in the dressing room is maybe more important than signing a load of big name players and spending all the money you’ve got.
"You see the likes of Derby, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest, who are massive clubs at this level, who have had really poor seasons from them. So it is probably nice for other people to see that a smaller club like us, budget-wise, has managed to – especially after the start to the season when we were bottom of the league after six games and things like that – it’s a nice change and people always like to see the underdog do well and we seem to thrive off that at the moment.
"Like I’ve said, we’ve got big games coming up, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we go to these teams and get some points."
Watch Tom and the team in action at Deepdale on Saturday 1st April as they take on Nottingham Forest in the first game after the international break! Tickets are available now online at MyPNE.Com or by calling 0344 856 1966.