The pressure has been eased on Preston North End boss Alex Neil following back-to-back home victories, but the upcoming January transfer window could be his toughest yet.
Neil is facing a serious battle to keep his star players, with Ben Pearson, Ben Davies, Daniel Johnson and Alan Browne – the ‘big four’ at Deepdale – all out of contract in the summer.
New deals are on the table for all of them, but they’re yet to be signed and that may indicate that they see their futures elsewhere.
It’s not just contracts that are giving Neil sleepless nights, as the North End treatment room continues to fill up, with Ryan Ledson and Brad Potts the latest casualties to add to Pearson’s damaged ankle ligaments suffered against Wycombe two weeks ago.
The serious injury to Patrick Bauer late on in their win at Bournemouth though has really weakened the depth at the back, and that’s not ideal for the team who have conceded the most goals in the league.
Bauer ruptured his achilles and joins a growing list of Championship centre backs, including Sheffield Wednesday star Dominic Iorfa, to suffer the injury in recent weeks.
The German will miss the rest of the season and it now leaves Neil with just Ben Davies, Paul Huntington and Jordan Storey to select there.
Natural left backs Andrew Hughes and Josh Earl could potentially slot in there but with Davies being the first choice (if he stays around amidst January interest), it’s a right-footed defender that is needed.
Storey and Huntington have both found themselves lacking at times when they’ve been called upon, and along with Bauer’s injury it means a new centre half is a priority in January.
And Neil could easily use a link forged by the 2018 loan signing of Lukas Nmecha – now banging in the goals for Anderlecht – to sign another Manchester City starlet in the form of Taylor Harwood-Bellis.
Harwood-Bellis will turn 19 at the end of January and the Stockport-born defender is seen as one of City’s brightest talents, having made his debut for the first team at the age of 17 last season.
Coincidentally that came against North End in the EFL Cup, as he and Eric Garcia kept the pacy Tom Barkhuizen quiet in a 3-0 third round victory back in September 2019.
Standing at 6ft 2in, Harwood-Bellis also offers pace and athleticism and could forge a quality partnership with Davies if he doesn’t depart in the next transfer window, with Sheffield United rumoured to be sniffing around once again.
So it may end up being two centre backs Preston need in January, but for now it’s just one they need, and they should be doing all they can to convince Harwood-Bellis to make the short journey to Deepdale for the rest of the season.