Manager Alex Neil has overseen a quiet revolution this season at Deepdale.
The North End boss has only been in position for ten months, but has seen the playing style overhauled and of today’s starting XI, as many as seven are unlikely to have started when we faced the Canaries on the same weekend last season.
The implementation of a new ethos in the squad and a new way of going about things, doesn’t always happen overnight, but the PNE squad have taken to it quickly and are still pushing for a top six finish.
So has the speed to the progress surprise the former Norwich City boss? We asked him as he prepared to face his former employers in PR1 this weekend.
“I have probably been surprised by the pace of the development we have gone through during the season,” he told The One And Only. “There was a certain style of play here for over four years before I came, so to take it from that to what I think is a completely different style of play, I think that sometimes takes time.
“It naturally evolves into what it is going to become. Although I have an idea in my head, it can only evolve as much as what your players can take on board and equally what your players’ strengths and weaknesses are as well.
“We need to make sure we try and get a good balance in terms of enough people wanting to run away from the ball and stretch the game, enough technicians in the team to want to try and control the ball, enough legs in the team to get up and down the pitch and combining those factors into one coherent unit and that takes time, so, yes, I have been surprised by how quickly we have adapted to that, but pleased as well.”
But was the quality in the dressing room exactly as he expected before he arrived and have any of the opinions he formed in the first couple of weeks of working with the Lilywhites been altered during the course of the season?
“I wouldn’t say any of them have surprised me.
“If I am being honest, before I came, I didn’t realise the tools that I had.
“When I walked in the door, I didn’t know too many of the players and I was hoping that I was going to have some good quality. I think the quality levels that we have got really did surprise me. When I walked in the door I though ‘I have got some really good players here’ and I think that as the season has wore on, they have got better and better and that is credit to them.
“All I can do is to try and guide and try cajole and help and try and point out things to improve their game, but they have to have the desire to do that as well and if they don’t, then it doesn’t really work. But our boys have been first class.
“Some of the boys have 100 per cent changed my opinion of them from my first couple of weeks to where we are now!
“I wouldn’t really like to say who that is, but I would probably say that there are four or five players who that when I walked in through the door I thought ‘I am not sure what he is or where he is going to play’, and all credit to them, they have completely changed my mind and imposed themselves on everything that I have done.
“My job is to pick the guys that perform, so every day when I walk out and watch them train, if people are going through the motions, they are not going to last here and if people go out and give me everything they have got and play at a high intensity and show they want to improve, then I will do everything I possibly can to try and help them.”
The other thing that has changed – and you hear it in every interview in the media that the manager or the players undertake – is their positivity and aspiration to get Preston North End to the Premier League, something the North End chief has been a key proponent of.
“I think the aspirations of where we are and where we want to get to has shifted.
“We probably felt we had achieved what we could and felt that with the budget that we had, this was where we were and we were quite happy, but now, that is not the same. I think we look at the table and think ‘why can’t we be one of the top six teams?’, there is no reason we can’t do that if we keep working hard.
“It might take a little bit of time, but that is where we want to strive to get.
“I think the players have much more confidence in themselves now; I think they recognise how good they can be and that is something I try to do with players, try to breathe confidence into them, but I think performances and wins and results and going to big places and being better than some of the big teams, that breeds more confidence than anything I can say to them.
“Me setting them up right and them performing and that camaraderie they have together are the most important things.”
You can read plenty more from Alex, along with features and interviews with Daryl Horgan, John Welsh and Sean Maguire, plus all the usual features and articles in our 100 page edition of The One And Only this weekend.
The official matchday programme will be on sale from the Sir Tom Finney ticket office from Friday afternoon and then from inside and outside the stadium on matchday for just £3, don’t miss out!