Can Simon Grayson make it Four Promotions?
League One still hurts for Preston North End supporters. Although current travails don’t come close to the dark days of the 1980s when the club flirted alternately with going out of the league and out of business altogether, a fanbase reared on the successes of the David Moyes era, not to mention the enduring legacy of the Invincibles, are very unwilling to accept the third level as their place in the natural order of things.
Who would have thought that the period overseen by Craig Brown might now be viewed as a comparative golden era, listless and unexciting as many of the team’s performances were during the stewardship of the Scotsman? – while Alan Irvine’s achievement in bringing narrow play off failure – one of eight such cataclysms – now almost seems like something to boast about.
Sound decision making has been patchily entered into in the club’s recent history – why was Irvine sacked? Why, indeed, was Paul Simpson similarly jettisoned two years before? Then there have been the less successful appointments – Phil Brown taking the team down to their current position and the high farce of Graham Westley’s spell in charge – a vaudevillian parade similarly laid on for the amusement of Blackpool fans – if the Tangerines weren’t currently experiencing their own sorry decline, that is.
Hence, PNE seemed to follow the basic precepts of your average provincial Human Resources Department – take a look at someone’s CV, see how far that document matches what you require and duly make a hiring. With three promotions from League 1 behind him, Simon Grayson could not have been better qualified for the job and – so far – results would seem to indicate his suitedness.
In keeping with the somewhat umambiguous reference provided in these pages by John Dobson on Grayson’s departure from Huddersfield, it hasn’t been that pretty however. North End have rarely elevated themselves above the prosaic since the former Leicester man took charge – but they have conceded only six goals in twelve matches – form which, if carried into next season, might well garner their head man a fourth elevation.
Porousness was never that much of an issue under Westley of course but constant chopping and altering led to ever chronic lapses. Now, Paul Huntington and Bailey Wright look totally ensconsed as a first choice centre back pairing – I’ve seen North End four times of late and each time, their partnership has been an assured one – Wright can be hot headed and occasionally prone to wander both physically and mentally, but there is a vigour there, a willingness of leap into the fray with full blooded commitment. Still only 20, Wright might just be a natural leader.
Either side, there has been a modicum of rotation, with on loan Paul Connolly and David Buchanan both raiding effectively in the recent 1-1 draw with Carlisle in particular, while Keith Keane has also provided a few high points – Grayson pulled off a masterstroke against Pompey by bringing the Irishman into midfield after the visitors’ passing had threatened to pull off an upset – the result, a dramatic thumper of an equaliser into the postage stamp corner.
That defensive granite has been the bedrock of the club’s ability to steer well clear of the relegation places and similar bulk can be detected elsewhere in the team – via Jack King’s somewhat inelegant but competitive battling up front, probable star player John Welsh’s canny depiction of the classic water carrier role in front of the defence, and a couple of good quality keepers in Thorsten Stuckmann and another temporary signing in Declan Rudd. Preston will always give you a game.
But what the Lancastrians need is a bit of verve to enervate the roundheads. John Mousinho, unfortunately, is far too tainted by the Westley era and despite his manager’s attempts to defend him, has become a confirmed boo-boy target in recent weeks while Nicky Wroe, on first glance the one player with the ability to get the ball on the floor and shimmy into a scoring position, has too often flattered to deceive – although Grayson has variously deployed him immediately behind the main striker and in the position usually occupied by Welsh.
So it’s the youthful likes of Wright and Jeffrey Monakana to whom Grayson probably needs to look. The past nine days have been abundant for the son of Enfield – cleverly cutting in from the right to put his team ahead at Brunton Park and then netting the winner against ailing Tranmere – thus putting the seal on one of this year’s saddest stories of decline. Monakana has often been used from the bench but his promise, balanced with the experienced nous of Joe Garner on the other flank could provide the framing for what North End really need – an unadulterated goalscorer.
For the spirit of ex-Didcot Town pair King and Stuart Beavon alongside more raw talent in Will Hayhurst looks unlikely to be enough to propel Preston into the promotion zone for 2013-14 even if all can be relied upon to play able supporting roles. There is a view among PNE fans that Beavon can perform the tasks of a poacher pure and simple or a willing second striker – but not both. If that’s the case, he’ll need somebody really good alongside him – really, really good infact.
A glance at the names of forwards with whom Grayson has previously been associated might provide a few hints as to who might be Ribble Valley bound even if £8 million man Jordan Rhodes is off limits for obvious reasons. In particular, Jermaine Beckford could be a possible acquisition – he has worked with the manager this year in a loan deal from Leicester while the duo also partnered up at Leeds. A drop in division but not necessarily in size of club might serve to reignite the once much talked about front man.
Indeed, it was a failure to properly replace Rhodes that led to Grayson’s fortunes taking a turn for the worse at the Galpharm Stadium and he’ll know not to make the same mistake again – this prolonged end of season honeymoon period will allow him to survey striking options – and he’ll also be mindful that a loan acquisition will be unlikely to do the trick – one such potential candidate, Simon Church saw a stuttering career stall still further after an undistinguished stint for the now PNE boss at Huddersfield while the Terriers’ coach might have expected better of Norwich loanee James Vaughan than a goal in every third match.
So there are possible options – but the North Yorkshireman might just as easily rely on his scouts to pluck an up and coming – and less expensive – options from lower down the pyramid. That policy might give Preston fans the willies though – still shaking as they are from the non-league stylings of Westley – so there will undoubtedly be a call for experience. The right choice – and I’d be surprised if North End restricted their selection to just the one striker – and we could see an early favourite established for promotion back to the Championship a year from now.