After a string of failed youth team players, Preston management and fans need to manage Josh Brownhill correctly
Preston's problem area this season has been central midfield. Joel Byrom, John Welsh, Nicky Wroe and John Mousinho have each played there this season, but none of them have been able to offer the dynamic, creative midfield option that the Lilywhites needed alongside Keith Keane.
Whilst fans were crying out for a loan signing, manager Simon Grayson decided to look inwards, and pluck a player from the youth team in Josh Brownhill, and he was rewarded as the 17-year-old marked his debut with the second goal in Preston's 2-1 over Gillingham.
Now, the Preston youth setup is hardly a conveyor belt of talent. The biggest name to come out of it in recent years is arguably Kevin Kilbane, and he left the club in 1997. There are a number of players who have gone on to have decent, if unspectacular careers in the Football League, such as Andrew Lonergan, Paul McKenna, Alan McCormack and Kelvin Langmead, but there has been an impatience attached to young players at Deepdale for too long.
Winger Danny Mayor, midfielder Adam Barton, full back Conor McLaughlin and striker Jamie Proctor all flashed ability when they were first introduced to first team, but, certainly in the case of Barton, fan expectation was too big, too quickly. None of those players remain at the club, all either sold or released by previous manager Graham Westley.
The case of Barton is particularly applicable to that of Brownhill. In 2010, Preston travelled to Burnley, desperately seeking a spark from somewhere to ignite their season. Manager Darren Ferguson gambled, starting Barton behind the front man, and it paid dividends, for 80 minutes at least. Barton played far beyond his years, turning in a man of the match performance and scoring Preston's first goal as they went into the last ten minutes leading 3-1, only to inexplicable concede three goals and lose the game 4-3.
Barton was the silver lining to a very big cloud that evening, and fans were excited about his future with the club. Talk of a £5m move to Liverpool began to surface, and both Republic and Northern Ireland sought to get him to commit to playing for them, but it seemed Barton was holding out for England.
The fans – and the manager – relied far too heavily on Barton, expecting a youngster to be the focal point of the team. Barton's confidence quickly drained as Preston struggled to find form, and playing in a losing team week in, week out seemed to diminish him, playing like a shadow of his display against Burnley.
After suffering a broken leg a year later, Barton was sold by Westley to Coventry City for a nominal fee, where he featured 26 times in all competitions last season. At 22, there is still time for him to reach heights that he threatened to reach in 2010, but it seems unlikely at this stage.
Grayson and the supporters must heed the lessons from previous years, and realise that Brownhill has yet to even turn 18, yet we already have people suggesting Premier League interest. He's a fantastic find, and his debut couldn't have gone any better, but fans need to place their immediate hopes and expectations on established players like Kevin Davies and Stuart Beavon, rather than piling pressure on Brownhill.
Alongside a strong core of experienced bodies – and playing in a team that consistently wins games – there is great hope that Brownhill will develop into one of the best players Preston have produced in recent years, and hopefully won't fall the same way as Barton unfortunately did.
image: © jamesmooreno1