In an era of wild spending, soft transfer embargoes and Championship clubs selling their stadiums before leasing them back to balance the books, a reminder that Preston North End’s record outlay remains the £1.5m plus add-ons they paid Manchester United to sign David Healy in 2001.
Barnsley’s biggest buy dates back even further, to 1997 when they signed Gjorgji Hristov, but in the past two years 14 second-tier teams have smashed their transfer record, with five doing so this summer. Splashing the cash is not Preston’s style – their starting XI against Blackburn last weekend cost £1.6m – and they deserve credit for doing things differently.
It is a model that continues to serve them well; after 14 matches Preston are second in the table and hopeful of gatecrashing the top six after a couple of near misses. Preston finished seventh, two points off the play-offs in Alex Neil’s first season in charge, and there is a belief that West Bromwich Albion’s spring pursuit of their Scottish manager disrupted their rhythm at a key stage last season. Preston’s recruitment, led by Neil and the former Leeds chairman Peter Ridsdale, an adviser to the owner Trevor Hemmings, has been impressive. Neil and Ridsdale regularly attend matches together, and Ridsdale speaks daily to Hemmings, who lives on the Isle of Man.
Preston are not parsimonious – they paid Barnsley and Coventry seven-figure fees for Brad Potts and Tom Bayliss respectively – but prudent. The onus is on finding value for money. Callum Robinson and Jordan Hugill, £170,000 and £25,000 signings from Aston Villa and Port Vale respectively, were both sold for £8m in the past two years, and the team that came from two goals down to beat Blackburn on Saturday included the Republic of Ireland midfielder Alan Browne, a £15,000 signing from Cork City five years ago, and Daniel Johnson, a £50,000 recruit from Aston Villa, as well as three free transfers: Darnell Fisher, Patrick Bauer and Paul Gallagher, who is in his fourth spell at the club.
Preston recruit similarly to Bristol City and Brentford in scouring the lower leagues for young and hungry talent, as well as finding homes for those with limited opportunities at Premier League clubs, such as Ben Pearson, who has excelled since joining from Manchester United. They are proactive and have already identified next summer’s transfer targets.
Preston boast the best home record in the Championship – only Manchester City have won at Deepdale this season – and they are also the division’s leading scorers. Tom Barkhuizen, for whom Preston paid Morecambe £150,000 compensation two years ago, has flourished, while Sean Maguire, Jayden Stockley and David Nugent, who returned to the club this summer, provide a variety of attacking options. Only Aleksandar Mitrovic and Ollie Watkins have scored more league goals this season than Johnson, who has relished playing as a No 10 and shares penalty duties with Gallagher, an evergreen performer.
Last season Preston were bottom after 11 matches and playing catch-up but, before travelling to Charlton on Sunday, they are two points off leaders West Brom, whose £8m outlay on Kenneth Zohore this summer highlights a financial disparity; Preston’s wage bill is among the lowest in the division at around £13m – a third of West Brom’s last season.
An eight-point blanket covers the top half and, in the absence of runaway leaders, plenty of teams will fancy their chances of promotion, or at least being in the mix in May. No team have suffered heartbreak in the play-offs more than Preston – failing nine times in 10 attempts – but that does not stop them from wanting to get there. Preston are one of five Championship clubs to have never played in the Premier League, but it feels as if they are getting closer.
“I think the difference is as a group of players we understand what it’s going to take to achieve something this year, ie to get into the top six or even get into the top two,” says Johnson. “I think our squad is a lot stronger now. You obviously want to put on a performance but you can’t always win the pretty way and we are well adapted to changing our style to dig out results. We have got everything in abundance as a team. We have been together for many years and we have been hanging around that top half for quite a while.
“In our first season [back in the Championship following promotion in 2015], we finished in the top half, when a lot of people wrote us off to get relegated, but we stood strong because we know what we’re capable of and we know the quality we’ve got. Last season we went on an unbelievable unbeaten run and had a little blip at the end and the season before that we finished seventh. We’ve been in and around it [the top six] for a very long time and now is our opportunity to go and grab it with both hands and cement our place in there. We’ve been there quite a few times now and we’ve had a little feeling of that ‘it’s really nice being in the top six’, but we want to stay there at the end of the season and to be fighting for something. This league is wide open.”
• With Jim Bentley stepping down after more than eight years in charge at Morecambe, the Wycombe manager, Gareth Ainsworth, has taken his mantle as the longest-serving manager in England’s top four divisions at seven years and 35 days. After Ainsworth, the longest-serving managers are Eddie Howe, Sean Dyche, Mauricio Pochettino and Accrington Stanley’s John Coleman. Kevin Ellison and Barry Roche have been placed in interim charge at Morecambe. Ainsworth, as well as guiding Wycombe to second in League One, has been busy making an early play for the Christmas No 1 with his band, the Cold Blooded Hearts, recording a cover of Dion’s The Wanderer, which will be released as a B-side and is on the matchday playlist at Adams Park.
• Stoke’s woes have perhaps taken some of the heat off Jonathan Woodgate at Middlesbrough but pressure is building on the former defender, who has won two of his opening 15 games as a manager. Boro are the lowest scorers in the division, with 11 goals from 14 matches, and last Saturday they mustered one shot on target in a 0-0 draw against a Fulham side reduced to 10 men after 17 minutes. They travel to Derby on Saturday hoping to end a seven-match winless run.
• Sol Campbell worked miracles at Macclesfield and, if Southend are to get out of trouble in League One, he will need to do so again. They have lost 12 of their 15 matches and are nine points from safety. The size of the task is not lost on Campbell, who takes his side to Sunderland on Saturday before a trip to Portsmouth. “I’ve got to overachieve, the players have got to overachieve,” he said. “We cannot waste a second.”