Date: 28th August 2020 at 4:38pm
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As the new season draws ever closer – with the shortest off-season ever witnessed due to the late ending of the 2019/20 season – we take a look at each Preston defender, how they fared during the last campaign and the future prospects for each of them at Deepdale.

It seems to me (and to most other North End fans) that our backline is a bit of a mixed bag. The centre-backs are and were solid last year, with options available in case of injury. However, take a look at our full-back depth last year and you can see, based on these grades, that we could do with adding another left-back and/or right-back to the ranks during the current offseason.

That isn’t to say they played terribly – spoiler alert, we ranked Darnell Fisher, our starting RB with a B – but if we were to lose one through suspension or injury, it could leave us struggling in that area.

Enough of the talk about where we could improve ahead of the new campaign and instead, let’s reflect and see how we ranked each of the North End defenders in 2019/20.

For our other report cards, just click the corresponding link below.

Goalkeepers – Article here.

Darnell Fisher – B

Fisher had another solid season, despite initial fears that he was starting to drop off as a player. He continued to be his usual dynamic self on the right and remains a firm fan favourite.

The right-back continues to produce the goods on a regular basis both offensively and defensively, although it seems as though he has taken over from Ben Pearson in the disciplinary stakes. Last season, he picked up ten yellow cards and one red, more than any other Lilywhites player.

In terms of tackling, he averaged 2.5 per game which is the most of any PNE player, showing that he always puts a shift in at the back for the club. Not only that, he also had more assists than any other defender and the third highest amount of anyone at Deepdale with four.

He’s made the spot on the right his own since his move from Rotherham and although he can sometimes prove himself to be a bit of a liability (like during the club’s 2-0 loss to West Brom where he was sent off) he tends to err more on the side of being reliable and solid in that position. Plus, he’s well capable of taking a solid set-piece too!

As for next season’s plans for the 26-year old, it’ll hopefully be business as usual. There were rumours floating around Twitter that he was out of favour at Preston and might actually be on his way out the exit door this summer, despite the fact he has been a first-team regular.

With the player also failing to be in either squad for the club’s two friendly games against Salford and Tranmere, it only added more fuel to the fire. However, Fisher himself took to Twitter to quash any rumblings of a potential falling out with Alex Neil and move away from Deepdale – which will be good news for PNE fans everywhere.

Joe Rafferty – B

Joe Rafferty (aka Rafu) is another defender who had a quietly solid and consistent season for North End. The good thing about the Irishman is that he offers versatility to Alex Neil and to the squad and whenever he is called.

When needed, he can step in and play at either left or right-back which has come in extremely useful. The thing that most impresses me (and no doubt most PNE fans) is that whenever he is called upon to step in and play, he always seems to put in a superb showing for us.

In fact, the former Rochdale man had five clean sheets last season and one assist, with an average of 1.2 interceptions and 1.2 tackles per game despite being shoehorned into his unfavoured left-back role 22 times last season. In fact, he played more games on the left than the right despite RB being his main position.

Despite this, he still impressed when he came on and had to do a job on that side, which is why he has earned his B grade. In terms of future plans for Rafu, he’s someone North End should definitely look to keep hold of due to his usefulness and it would be nice to see him getting a longer and more consistent run in the team. Whether that will be on the right or left (more likely, considering Fisher has that spot nailed down until his injuries and/or inevitable suspensions) doesn’t matter, as he continues to do solidy in either spot for Preston.

Ben Davies – A

Our most important and best defender. He has truly come on leaps and bounds for North End since his loan spell with Fleetwood and move from a left-back into the centre of defence.

A ball-playing defender who is extremely adept with the ball at his feet (he averaged 44.4 passes per game, the second-most in the team behind Ben Pearson and yet still had a 75.9% pass success rate) he has become an important asset in terms of his play style and his defensive work rate.

He’s still only 25 years of age and is continuing to get stronger and stronger as a player and defender. Alongside new signing Patrick Bauer, he was a rock at the back and claimed seven clean sheets during the 2019/20 campaign.

He also had more MOTM showings according to WhoScored than any other central defender with two (tied most for a defender with Darnell Fisher).

His showings are clearly catching the eye outside of Deepdale too, with Leicester eyeing a move for the PNE man. It would be a great shame to lose Davies to the Premier League club – or to any club this off-season for that matter – but you couldn’t blame the defender if he did make the move. He’s proved himself to be a more than capable centre-back at this level and he would no doubt make the step up with ease.

The future plans for the 25-year old would obviously be to tie him down to a new contract at Deepdale with his current deal set to expire next summer. Whether we’ll be able to do that or whether we’ll have to wave goodbye to the player who came up through our youth ranks is yet to be known.

Patrick Bauer – B+

Bauer might well be PNE’s signing of the 2019/20 season. After joining North End on a free transfer from Charlton last summer, he walked straight into the first-team and featured 41 times in the Championship during the campaign and quickly became one of the club’s most dependable players.

He averaged 1.04 goals conceded every 90 minutes (or a goal every 86 minutes in other terms) which is the best rate of any defender at the club and shows how solid he has proven to be since joining.

In addition, he even chipped in with three goals, which clearly shows his threat in the air from set-pieces. In fact, he won the most aerials of anybody at the club, averaging 6.1 won per game. Therefore, he has proven to be an astute bit of business due to his threat both in attack and with his solid defensive work.

Bauer formed quite the pairing with Ben Davies and the two quickly became two of the first names on the teamsheet and an important part of the spine of the side. Their performances have meant that centre-back is now considered arguably one of the positions with the most strength for us. Before Bauer (in the 2018/19 season), we conceded 67 goals in the Championship. After him? 54, 13 less. Coincidence? Probably but Bauer has certainly shored up the defence and earned his grade.

Jordan Storey – B

Maybe I’m being a bit generous to Storey considering he only started 10 Championship games last season but I really like him and, from what I’ve seen, he looks an extremely solid player.

Towards the back end of the campaign was when he started to get more playing time for Preston and it’s then when he truly shined. Coming into the squad for the game against Sheffield Wednesday on 8th July, he was a machine at the back. Making six clearances, one interception, two tackles and one last ditch tackle to undoubtedly deny a clear goalscoring opportunity, he proved that he may be young but he was ready to start games.

He went on to earn a rating of 8/10 (Sofascore) – one of the best on the pitch, not just for North End – against Birmingham in our 2-0 win against the St Andrew’s outfit and then ended the season with six more clearances and eight aerials won against Bristol City as we secured a 1-1 draw.

Simply put, in his minimal amount of first-team action he impressed me massively. He’s still only young at just 22 but he fills me with confidence that if Ben Davies were to leave this summer, he could step-in and do a more than capable job already. Let’s hope he kicks on and features even more next year.

Paul Huntington – C

Huntington only featured in 10 games in all competitions last season and it’s clear to see that he is less of a first-team regular and more of a squad or backup player now.

The 32-year old was called upon when needed in the centre of defence and still did a decent job though. He won the second most aerial duels of any centre-back with 4.1 on average and he also averaged more blocks and interceptions per game than both Bauer and Davies (albeit he played much less football).

He’s been a fantastic servant to the club and is likely to be kept on until the end of his current deal and has proven, like Storey, that when called upon he will be able to do a job.

However, it’s likely that he will spend most of next season sat on the bench and no doubt faces a fate similar to Tom Clarke.

Tom Clarke – C

Captain. Hero. Legend.

Clarke has been with us through the struggles in League 1 and helped us to promotion back to the second tier of English football. He’s captained us along the way, putting in shift after shift both at CB and on the right.

However, take a look at his performances in 2019/20 and you knew that this would be his last season with the Lilywhites. He only played 10 games like Huntington, except he was prone to a few errors in these games. In fact, he registered one error that did ultimately lead to a goal.

That wasn’t to say he was shockingly bad by any means. He averaged nearly two tackles a game and three clearances and you can always rely on the skipper to throw his body on the line and get a foot in to stop any dangerous attack or stop North End from conceding.

But, with several players in each of his positions now, he fell down the pecking order and has now signed for League Two club Salford upon the expiry of his PNE deal.

We wish him all the best at his new club and hope he succeeds with the club. After all, he’ll always be the one who put the ball in the Blackpool net.

Andrew Hughes – C+

The left-back is North End’s current first-choice in his position but it might be a position that we need to strengthen during the off-season.

The thing with Hughes is, he can blow hot and cold. He can have an incredible game both offensively and defensively one week and then have an absolute nightmare a week later. He has a worse pass success rate than backup Joe Rafferty and although he usually chips in with a goal or assist via a cross or a set-piece but last year he managed neither.

He also averaged less crosses per game than any other full-back. It’s led to many PNE fans asking the question of whether or not he will need replacing this summer.

It’s a very real possibility that Alex Neil may in fact bring in a new full-back as, since the loss of Greg Cunningham, it has been an area we have struggled to refill and we do tend to leave ourselves short in that position if injuries take their toll or players need resting. With Josh Earl back in the picture though, he could in fact step-in and take the LB spot.

That isn’t to say that Hughes is absolutely useless. He won 62% of his duels (including 72% of his aerial duels) showing he is dependable in the air and with an average of 3.1 clearances a game, he is well capable of putting in a defensive shift. The disappointing thing is only that he can sometimes prove to be the weak link in the backline and sometimes doesn’t offer enough going forward.

If we started the season with Hughes, it wouldn’t be an issue. We know that Hughes is an adequate position filler at LB and it wouldn’t be a huge issue. Perhaps the introduction of Josh Earl or a new signing as competition might also bring the best out of Hughes next season after a 2019/20 campaign in which he didn’t stand out too much on the pitch.

Agree with our grades? Have we been too generous to Jordan Storey? Are we being too harsh on our experienced defenders and/or Andrew Hughes? Let us know via our social media @VitalPNE or down below in the comments.