An in-depth look at five managers in the frame for Preston North End

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 22 March 2021, 16:42

Alex Neil has parted company with Preston North End after four years at the helm.

Neil’s time at Deepdale has been largely impressive, with the Lilywhites launching Play-Off bids in his first three seasons in charge.

In that time, it felt as though the Scot’s excellent coaching was being undermined by a lack of investment, which stopped the Lancashire club from evolving the 2014-15 League One promotion-winning core.

This season, though, it has almost been the opposite.

Physical front-man Emil Riis Jacobsen, midfield technician Ben Whiteman, ball-winner Jayson Molumby, defensive organiser Liam Lindsay, striker Ched Evans and tricky wide man Anthony Gordon have all looked decent individually yet North End, as a unit, have struggled.

That might be partly down to stagnation in stalwarts – driven midfielder Alan Browne, creator-in-chief Daniel Johnson, mobile forward Sean Maguire and direct runner Tom Barkhuizen - as well as the exit of key Bens Davies and Pearson, but there’s also been a decline in Alex Neil.

The former Norwich boss rejuvenated the squad in 2017 with his energy and drive, inheriting Simon Grayson’s solid foundations and taking it on another level by bringing more attacking football and fresh motivational qualities.

This season, that man has been almost unrecognisable and it’s possible that his tenure, relatively long in the modern game, has drained him of that energy and perhaps he needs a sabbatical to reset.

In the meantime, North End need a new gaffer: here are five contenders in the next Preston manager market

Neil Harris

Why he should get the job

One of the most underrated and, perhaps, misunderstood managers in English football.

For his long ball style, Harris is too often chucked into the Pulis category, but direct does not mean defensive.

“Chopper”’s sides at their best play with a high line, throw themselves into challenges and have no hesitation in getting the ball up to their main focal point, be that Steve Morison at Millwall or Kieffer Moore at Cardiff.

Harris led the Lions to a top six League One finish in his first full season in charge, then guided them to promotion the following year and, in their debut season at Championship level, made the Den a fortress, putting together an inspirational Play-Off charge.

That 2017-18 campaign showed that, with a bottom six budget as North End will have, the former striker can build competitive teams at this level.

Harris also took charge of Cardiff last season when they were 14th in November and led them into the Play-Offs, before arguably being unlucky with results this term.

Harris’ sides can bombard opponents with their aggressive style, which allows them to frequently enter the penalty area and get lots of efforts at goal away, whilst denying their opponents room to settle.

Why he might not

In Harris’ four-year reign, Millwall only sold one first team player for a fee and that was George Saville to Middlesbrough.

While Harris can build competitive teams, he struggles to nurture individuals with the technical ability to interest Premier League clubs, because good passing ability is a bonus rather than a primary requirement in his sides.

Instead, Harris’ style relies on having a centre-forward who is strong, aerially dominant and capable of good hold-up play, whilst being slightly more mobile than expected, accounting for the possibility that some direct balls will not be aimed perfectly – especially when played from deep.

North End, it could be argued, do not have an obvious contender for that role in their existing squad, especially with Jakobsen out of favour.

The Sack Race’s Verdict

Harris could be perceived as old-school in his man management methods and has been titled ‘manager’ in his career previously, but North End are looking to appoint a ‘head coach’.

It remains to be seen whether Harris is happy to defer power in certain facets of the running of the club such as recruitment to fit into the structure.

Gareth Ainsworth

Why he should get the job

Ainsworth’s ability to connect with people is arguably the strongest facet of his management, so it makes sense for his next job to be at a club he already has an affiliation with.

“Wild Thing” played 82 games for North End in the early to mid-1990s and is loved by supporters from that time, which already makes him someone natives can get behind.

Wycombe went from beating relegation to non-league on the final day of the 2013-14 campaign to being one of the promotion frontrunners the following season, despite having spent little.

Two unsuccessful Play-Off challenges followed before a top three finish, inspired by Adebayo Akinfenwa, in 2017-18.

Not only did Ainsworth keep Wycombe up in their debut season in League One, he started pre-season for the following campaign with a wafer-thin squad and, though helped by later investment from the Couhigs, inspired them to an extraordinary promotion.

Ainsworth is the Chairboys’ greatest ever manager – and, along with Richard Dobson, he consistently finds ways of bridging budgetary gaps by compiling strategies that nullify the opposition’s strengths and exploit their weaknesses.

Wycombe into the Championship is arguably a bigger achievement than leading Preston North End into the Premier League would be, so the raw logic suggests Ainsworth could pull it off.

Why he might not

Ainsworth is an underdog specialist: he loves to create a siege mentality and play on the notion that every outsider has written his team off.

The problem he might have at Deepdale is that, although North End are underdogs at this level from a budgetary perspective, that may not be how the club identifies itself.

The Lilywhites are one of the founder members of the Football League, they are one of two clubs to have gone a whole domestic season unbeaten and have been at this level for six years.

All those things add to the expectation, so it is possible that while fans might fall in love with Ainsworth initially, they could grow frustrated by his tendency to play down his side’s overall chances whilst at times stretching to find positives from individual matches.

The direct football might not maximize the talents of midfielders like Ben Whiteman, an excellent signing from Doncaster who will want to get on the ball as much as possible. 

The Sack Race’s Verdict

Is doing a great job at Wycombe, despite likely relegation this term but wouldn’t quite be the right fit for North End.

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Gareth Ainsworth has been in charge of Wycombe since 2012

Michael Appleton

Why he should get the job

Appleton took charge at Oxford in summer 2014, when they were a midtable League Two club and by the time he left, they had challenged for the Play-Offs in League One.

On top of that, the Yellows had reached two EFL Trophy Finals, knocked eight higher league sides out of cup competitions and developed as many as 12 players who would go on to perform in the top two divisions of English football.

Appleton has built up a fantastic reputation within the English game, as well as the youth circuit, which would allow him to get the country’s top talent on second loan spells, as well as pick up players with potential on long-term contract.

Why he might not

Appleton is committed to Lincoln, having signed a five-year contract at Sincil Bank, which suggests compensation will not come cheap.

The last two managers Trevor Hemmings and the board have appointed had been out of work at the time, so it’s hard to see the club digging deep.

West Brom and Sheffield United, who are expected to come into the Championship next season, are reportedly after Appleton and would have the parachute payments to make a deal happen.

The Sack Race’s Verdict

Would be an extremely fashionable appointment, but North End might not quite have the resources to pull it off.

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Michael Appleton was once Preston's record signing

Ryan Lowe

Why he should get the job

Lowe should already be working in the Championship.

In his first full season as a manager, the Liverpudlian inspired Bury to automatic promotion from League Two with an expansive, possession-based system.

In ordinary circumstances, he would have led the Shakers to League One consolidation and perhaps got headhunted from there, but heart-breaking developments at Gigg Lane rendered that impossible.

Lowe had to move to Plymouth Argyle in 2019 and repeated the trick, with the PL2 outfit looking streaky in League One’s midtable this term.

Lowe likes 3-1-4-2 with heavy emphasis on playing out from the back, so Sepp van den Berg and Andrew Hughes – lacking attacking thrust as full-backs – would make tidy, overlapping centre-backs flanking Liam Lindsay.

Whiteman, meanwhile, would have the freedom to get on the ball frequently and dictate terms, which would lend North End a lot of control in their encounters.

The 42-year-old has ambitions of managing in the second tier and has roots in the north-west, so a move to Deepdale would likely be attractive to him from a career perspective and a geographical one.

Why he might not

If Lowe does not have natural wing-backs available, which he would not initially in PR1, he is more likely to drop an attacking player back than push a conservative full-back higher up.

Winger by trade Nicky Adams played at right wing-back at Bury then George Cooper, an enigmatic, right-footed attacking midfielder, was deployed at left wing-back at Home Park – wide forward Byron Moore played wing-back for both clubs.

Such tactical courage worked for Lowe when he could afford better players than most opponents, but there’s an argument for North End being more pragmatic.

Say Tom Barkhuizen and Anthony Gordon were deployed as wing-backs, for example, they would want to spend the whole game in the opposing half, risking a massive chasm down the flanks that higher-pressing, quicker and better quality opponents could exploit.

The Sack Race’s Verdict

If Lowe leads Argyle into Play-Off contention next season, he will likely be in demand. Taking him now would be a slight risk, given that he has not yet achieved massively above expectation in his career, but it might be worth it in order to secure one of English football’s most innovative managerial minds.

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Ryan Lowe has two promotions to his name with Bury and Plymouth

Michael Carrick

Why he should get the job

Manchester United links.

North End have no Under-23s squad, which makes it difficult for them to convince clubs in League One and League Two to take a chance on their top teenage talent on loan, let alone be able to offer those players first team opportunities at Deepdale.

Long-term, that is a problem the club must address, but short-term, it would help them to appoint somebody with links to an elite north-west club.

Michael Carrick currently has a prominent role at one of the biggest clubs in the world, which shows he has some potential as a young coach – but the 39-year-old might have to step down a division to prove himself as a number one.

Carrick’s contacts at Old Trafford would help the Lancashire outfit loan in United’s best young talent like Ethan Laird, Hannibal Mejbri and Di’Shon Bernard, as well as permanently taking players that do not quite make the grade at the elite level but could still rebuild their careers in the Championship.

Plus, North End do not have the most modern facilities but if they were to appoint Carrick, they might get permission to train occasionally at Carrington.

Why he might not

Carrick. Solskjaer. Phelan. Fletcher. Butt. Manchester United have made a habit of appointing staff members based on how popular they are, rather than analysing all the coaches in the world and cherry-picking the best.

While Carrick could be an excellent coach, therefore, it’s equally possible that he got his current job on reputation rather than ability.

In appointing the former midfielder, North End could be neglecting someone who is proven to deliver success as a number one in favour of an unknown quantity.

The Sack Race’s Verdict

Difficult to balance the advantages of Manchester United links with the uncertainty of how good he truly is as a coach, let alone how good he would be as a manager. Would be a shot in the dark.

Next Preston North End Manager Odds

Gareth Ainsworth

Current Team: Wycombe Wanderers


Nicky Butt

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Frankie McAvoy

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Roy Keane

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Uwe Rosler

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Joey Barton

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Robbie Fowler

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Dean Holden

Previous Team: Bristol City


Grant McCann

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David Healy

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Michael Appleton

Current Team: Lincoln City


Callum Davidson

Current Team: St Johnstone


Neil Lennon

Previous Team: Celtic


Derek McInnes

Previous Team: Aberdeen


Eddie Howe

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Kenny Jackett

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Garry Monk

Previous Team: Sheffield Wednesday


Alan Pardew

Previous Team: ADO Den Haag


Tony Pulis

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Jack Ross

Current Team: Hibernian


Daniel Stendel

Previous Team: Heart of Midlothian


Chris Wilder

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Derek Adams

Current Team: Morecambe


Slaven Bilic

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Mark Bowen

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Sol Campbell

Previous Team: Southend United


Michael Carrick

Previous Team: None


Lee Carsley

Current Team: England U20


Steve Clarke

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Paul Clement

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Chris Coleman

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Michael Duff

Current Team: Cheltenham Town


Steve Evans

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Ian Evatt

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Darren Ferguson

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Darren Fletcher

Previous Team: None


Michael Flynn

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Ryan Giggs

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Neil Harris

Previous Team: Cardiff City


Mark Hughes

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Slavisa Jokanovic

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Michael Jolley

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Aitor Karanka

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Harry Kewell

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Sabri Lamouchi

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Michael Laudrup

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Ryan Lowe

Current Team: Plymouth Argyle


Malky Mackay

Previous Team: Wigan Athletic


Kevin Nolan

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Martin O'Neill

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Phil Parkinson

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Chris Powell

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Steven Reid

Previous Team: None


Stephen Robinson

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Tim Sherwood

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Alan Stubbs

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John Terry

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Paul Tisdale

Previous Team: Bristol Rovers


Graham Westley

Previous Team: Stevenage


Ian Holloway

Previous Team: Grimsby Town


Frank Lampard

Previous Team: Chelsea


Paul Lambert

Previous Team: Ipswich Town


Odds Correct as of 2021-04-20 14:35:58
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