Preston North End are in great form and dreaming of the Premier League.
But are they as good as the team that fell tantalisingly close to the big time in 2005?
In my opinion, no.
Alex Neil has built a young, vibrant, progressive and exciting squad.
North End sit second in the Championship – a fitting representation of the business that owner Trevor Hemmings and his advisor, Peter Ridsdale, have done off the field.
Ridsdale, Neil and the rest of the people high up in decision-making at Deepdale have been proactive in getting their ‘golden nuggets’ tied down and contracted to the club, and also have had a very shrewd eye for talent and a good deal.
The free signing of Patrick Bauer, who was instrumental in helping Charlton Athletic gain promotion from League One last season, looks an immense bit of business. The German has settled in beautifully alongside Ben Davies at the heart of defence.
Joe Rafferty, who looked limited when he first pulled on the famous strip, has been Herculean this season, adapting very well to a change from right-back to left-back, and has shown great drive and desire. ‘Raffers’ is quickly becoming a fan-favourite.
So, great. It’s a very good side and the fans are loving every minute at the moment.
But to me, the team of 2005 beaten by West Ham United were far better equipped to be promoted than the current crop.
That’s no disrespect to the squad of today – they have taken a league where the standard is generally weaker, and there isn’t as much depth quality-wise, by the scruff of the neck.
It’s difficult to compare players from era to era, because to butcher the David Brent quote, “different players for different needs.”
But I’d argue PNE’s defence was far more secure then – starting with the goalkeeper of course.
Declan Rudd has been a very good servant of the club – making 126 appearances over three different spells.
Rudd, though, does have a mistake in him – one can’t help but think of the terrible blunder where he failed to control a ball rolling towards him, resulting in the shot-stopper having football pie all over his shirt.
In the great side of 2005, however, there was a ‘keeper in Carlo Nash who was solid, very good at commanding his area and teams rarely dirtied his clean sheets.
In the 2005/06 season, Nash kept a club record 24 clean sheets, more than eventual champions, Reading.
At full-back, I’d rather have the ever reliable, consistent, fan favourite stalwart, Graham Alexander over Darnell Fisher.
Fisher is a feisty full-back and the master of his craft in drawing fouls and getting the referee to call for a free-kick when he finds himself in an awkward predicament, but his lack of discipline and consistency lets him down sometimes.
North End’s number two was outstanding at Charlton on Sunday, but give me Grezza any day.
Billy Davies’ central defensive pair, Youl Mawene and Claude Davis were ever so consistent, great readers of play and no-nonsense.
The current pair, Ben Davies and Patrick Bauer, are mighty effective in their own right – Davies a classy, left-footed ball playing defender, whereas Bauer is more of the no-nonsense, big, strong defender that would fit right in, in bygone years.
Davies and Bauer can become the influential pair that Mawene and Davis were over a decade ago.
Comparing the midfields is nigh on impossible – the current outfit play two holding midfielders, fuelled by Ben Pearson’s feistiness and mite, and the elegant, technically exemplary Paul Gallagher, who is ageing like a fine wine. Daniel Johnson is plying his trade in the 10, where he is thriving.
In contrast, the team of 2005 stuck with a more rigid 4-4-2 formation, such was the norm, where two sturdy midfielders in Paul McKenna and Brian O’Neil would martial.
Both midfields are very effective for their times, and you’d suggest that the midfield of today’s batch of high-flyers are the most integral to their success.
It should be noted that the team of today are about as deadly on the break as any Preston team in living memory, helped by the pace of Tom Barkhuizen, Sean Maguire and Brad Potts when they play out wide.
The team of yesteryear had the technical brilliance of Eddie Lewis on the left, and the workmanlike Chris Sedgwick on the right.
Both devastating in many ways in their own right – I remember being in awe of the class of Lewis as a young pup hooked by my love for PNE.
David Nugent has returned to the club and nobody was more pleased than me – the sort of 20-goal a season striker that stands any side in good stead in my childhood.
Now he’s back, I’ve been really impressed with the way he has adapted his game.
Nugent has changed into more of a direct forward, throwing his weight around and making a nuisance of himself. He’s lost that lightening yard of pace he once had, and doesn’t score the goals he once did as a result, but he is still serving an important purpose at Deepdale.
The England international teamed up with the tireless work-horse Richard Cresswell, and the pair were deadly in front of goal.
Today’s strikers have struggled for goals – an odd anomaly of the Championship’s top goalscorers.
Preston’s most frequent source of goals has come from Johnson, who plays in the hole behind the front men. The Jamaican has notched eight goals so far this season – the fifth most in the division.
The Lilywhites have been outstanding on home turf. Only champions of England, Manchester City have won at Deepdale so far this season. Preston have gained 20 points on their own patch in just eight games.
One must remain grounded about PNE’s current success, though. The gaffer hasn’t been quite as spotless tactically on his travels this term, despite wins at Birmingham City and Charlton Athletic, as he was for large parts of last season.
This is backed up by Alex Neil’s side topping the home-form table, yet they sit 12th in the away table.
There are genuine reasons why supporters are getting excited, and I don’t blame them, but it’s perhaps wise to remember that better Preston North End teams have fallen at the hurdle that is trying to get a seat the top table of English football.
The current side, led by the exciting Alex Neil have every chance of exposing a weak league, but they’re not – in my opinion – the force they were once upon a time.