Preston player Ben Pearson on why he had to leave Manchester United and the ‘drastic changes’ under Alex Neil that leave him believing he can get back to the Premier League.
When manager Simon Grayson left for Sunderland in the summer, it would have been understandable if Preston North End had opted for a continuity candidate. Someone who could carry on the good work that had brought back-to-back top-half finishes since returning to the Championship via their play-off victory at Wembley in 2015.
Instead, new boss Alex Neil has sought to shake things up. Preston have become a pressing team. Neil monitors the players’ distance covered stats closely and demands a high-tempo approach. Speaking to midfielder Ben Pearson, he makes no attempt to downplay the transformation. “To be honest, I think it has been a drastic change,” Pearson tells Sky Sports.
“The style of play that we have been playing involves a lot more pressing and a lot more playing out from the back. It is the complete opposite of what we had been doing in terms of style of play. But I think we have adjusted well and we certainly have the players to play that way, it is just a case of being confident and brave enough on the day to carry it out.”
Preston vs Bolton
November 17, 2017, 7:00pm
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The season began well and it was only a 96th minute goal at Fulham last month that denied Preston a win that would have taken them within a single point of the automatic promotion places. But an injury crisis that left Neil without his entire back four at one stage, has led to four consecutive defeats that have seen them slip back into the bottom half of the table.
Pearson is adamant that the mood remains positive. “You cannot really look at these past five games and judge us too much,” he says. “The injuries that we have had have been a massive factor so it’s tough to take. But we have competed in the majority of games that we have been in and we should probably have had more points than we have picked up.”
Competing is part of Pearson’s make up. The 22-year-old ranks second for tackles per 90 minutes among Championship midfielders. “The way that the manager has been playing me in the holding role suits me,” he adds. “I can help build from the back, sniff tackles out and break up the play, so it has been beneficial for me to have the new manager come in.”
Pearson’s background at Manchester United means he is well equipped to adjust to a more expansive game. As a United supporter, he still takes great pride in having followed in the footsteps of fellow Oldham boy Paul Scholes in winning the coveted Jimmy Murphy academy player of the year award in 2013.
Unfortunately, the first-team opportunity never came his way. “I was obviously limited in my chances at such a big club,” he says. “I progressed all the way to the reserves and staked my claim for the first team, but it’s always going to be tough for young players in that situation. I think you need a bit of faith from the manager to play you.
“There have been managers at big clubs who have done that but it is just a case of being in the right place at the right time. You need to have injuries to other players in your position and then you have to play and play well. It did not work out for me when I was there and when that happens you have to build yourself up again.
“Too many lads these days sit in the reserves and pray for that opportunity. You can do that for too long and you can get lost in it. Eventually you need to give it up, move on and go out and show how good you are. It was a tough decision to make but the main thing was going out and playing proper football at a high level. Doing that was the best choice I made.”
Pearson signed for Preston in the summer of 2016 with the plan of using it as a platform to get back to where he wants to be. It puts him in a good position to advise Josh Harrop, the young forward who made the same switch from United in June, despite having scored on his Premier League debut at Old Trafford on the final day of last season.
“Josh had a good opportunity last year and took it,” says Pearson. “But with the money being spent at that club it was always going to be tough for him to carry that on. He has made a similar decision to me, to come here and play games. For many young players that has to be the route if you’re not getting regular football at a Premier League club.
“There are two ways of doing it really. You either come down from the Premier League or you work your way up the way that [Preston’s former non-league striker] Jordan Hugill has done. It means that as well as a good mix of experienced pros and young players, we have a mix of different experiences too. There are all the right ingredients for a good squad here.”
Neil bemoaned his team's defensive injuries after losing 2-0 to Aston Villa
The plan is to get back to the Premier League, but does Pearson really believe that can be achieved at Preston? He acknowledges it is getting tougher every season but insists they can beat anyone on their day and, in Neil, they have a manager who has already taken Norwich up to the top flight. Pearson believes it is a realistic target for the club.
“We just have to stick to doing what we have been doing and the aim remains to push for those play-off places this year and see where it takes us,” he adds. “Over the next two or three years we do have to be looking for promotion eventually. I think that should be every team’s aim in this division. We have just got to keep going.”
The next step is on Friday when Bolton Wanderers are the visitors to Deepdale for the live game on Sky Sports. After a difficult period, Pearson is confident that Preston can show their best form once again. “I think the break came at a good time and we have players coming back,” he adds. “The rest has stood us in good stead for Friday.
“We have gone back to basics a bit and got back to working on the things we were working on at the beginning of the season. With the players who have been missing it has been tough to play the way that we want to play, but we are going to get back to that now and see where that takes us. Hopefully we can get back to winning ways.”
Don’t miss the Sky Bet Championship clash between Preston and Bolton on Friday night, live on Sky Sports Football from 7pm