Reading are back in league action for Mark Bowen’s first game as manager, but it won’t be an easy contest. The Royals take on high-flying Preston North End, who sit third in the table after a lightning-quick start to the season. It’s certainly been a huge turnaround since the early stages of last season when Alex Neil’s side looked destined for League One.
What have you made of Preston’s start to the season?
I think even the most optimistic Preston fan didn’t see this coming at the start of the season. We had a very average transfer window, only bringing in a few players such as Patrick Bauer and David Nugent, the former being one of the star players in the division so far this season. There was frustration going into the season that we didn’t have the ambition needed to be successful in this division and seemed content with hovering around mid-table. The start that we have made has certainly caught me by surprise.
As far as on field goes we have come out of the blocks flying, turning Deepdale into a real fortress again by winning all our home games bar one which we drew to Bristol City. The away form has been steady as well with points coming regularly, the only blemishes being the defeats to Millwall and Swansea City.
I think the key for us so far has been the ability to turn draws into victories. Over the past few seasons we have had a tendency to draw far too many games to mount a serious play off push. We have always been a hard team to beat, but equally, found it hard to beat teams at times. This season so far though we have found that perfect balance.
Around a year ago you looked set for relegation - what’s caused the turnaround?
Injuries played a massive factor at the start of last season, coupled with an extremely difficult opening set of fixtures. The squad quickly fell into that mentality of losing each week and we were fearing the worst. I don’t think it was a surprise that around October/November as the injuries and fixtures cleared up that we put a winning run together and managed to climb the table.
The main reasons for the upturn in form more so this season have been largely down to who we have had back fit in key areas. Josh Harrop and Billy Bodin both missed the entirety of last season, and Harrop especially this season has been instrumental along with Daniel Johnson to how we have broken teams down at will.
The signing as I mentioned earlier of Patrick Bauer has also played a massive role as well. Jordan Storey and Ben Davies were fantastic last season but at times lacked that experience needed, Bauer has resolved that and also added an aerial presence at the back which we have lacked as Paul Huntington has got older.
The mixture of those, coupled with Alex Neil getting the maximum out of the squad at the moment has blended together perfectly and is the reason in our upturn in form.
Are Preston real promotion contenders?
I would love to say we are, but I have learned to never get ahead of myself as a Preston fan. We seem to be there or thereabouts come April but fall off as the pressure mounts. This season however I feel could be different.
The group of players that we have together now have largely been together for several years now and are all approaching their mid-twenties. The experience of previous campaigns is now there and that fills me with confidence that they will be more prepared this time round. The likes of Ben Pearson and Ben Davies look ready to carry the team forwards and having a spine of the team with that experience bodes well for the challenge ahead.
Alex Neil as well has had another summer to bring in the players that he feels can benefit the team. Brad Potts was brought in last winter to bolster the attack, and Patrick Bauer in the summer to do the same with the defence. The squad is in a much healthier place it was 12 months ago, and it is showing on the pitch.
The past few seasons we have started poorly and have had to make up ground on teams that are already well into their stride. This season with our fantastic start we have put ourselves in a fantastic position, and now it is up to us to capitalise on it. The next few fixtures, with the exception of Leeds at home look to be winnable (that’s not to say I expect us to lose to Leeds, far from it). So we have a great base to build on and if we can stay around the top six going into Christmas then who knows!
What are your main strengths?
The main strength definitely is in our attack. 100%.
We have been brilliant, and clinical this season going forwards, scoring the most goals in the league whilst being one of the lesser sides in terms of creating chances. In short, give our forwards a sniff of goal and they will punish you.
Daniel Johnson has been arguably the player of the season in the entire division so far with seven goals and four assists, last time out against Barnsley registering a perfect 10/10 rating in ‘Who Scored’s’ team of the week. He was always a talented player for us but seemed to have one good game in about five or six. This year though, for whatever reason, he is having those games week in week out.
As usual we are also sharing the goals around and not relying on one person which has also benefited us. All this coupled together definitely make us one of the better attacking sides in the division at present.
With the team playing well at the moment it is hard to pick out a glaring weakness.
The main issue I still have is that we are light in the full-back areas with no real cover. Alan Browne who was brilliant as a number ten last season has been deployed as an emergency right back at times, and Joe Rafferty who is a right back by trade has had to fill in at left back. Both have been solid in their make shift positions but it is definitely an area that we need to address in the next transfer window.
Other than that there isn’t too much I can complain with at the moment. We are scoring goals and conceding less than we usually do. My only real complaint is that we didn’t beat Millwall on the opening day, a game which we dominated possession in, and if we had won we would currently be top!
How do you see the game going, and what will the score be?
Traditionally as you’re well aware, Preston always struggle on trips to Reading. This time however, I’m hoping for a different outcome. We are playing really good, attacking football at present, being the top scorers in the division as well and I feel that the attacking ability of this side at the moment will prove too strong for a Reading side which have been susceptible to leaking goals at home recently.
Score wise I think a 2-0 or 3-1 to Preston would be a good guess as to where both teams are at present, however in the back of my mind I’m nervous as Reading always seem to turn it on when we come to town. Couple that with the new manager coming in, albeit in bizarre circumstances, there is reason for Reading fans to be optimistic that you can sneak something out of the game.
I’m going to back my gut though and say that Preston will come out 2-0 winners.