It’s probably fair to say that injuries haven’t exactly helped Preston North End’s push for promotion in recent weeks.
The past few matches have seen manager Alex Neil forced to cope with the absence of a number of first-team players in defence in particular, with the North End boss forced to field an entire second string back four during their recent 1-0 defeat at home to West Brom.
As a result, there was one moment during his side’s 2-1 win over Fulham on Tuesday, that Neil will have wanted to have seen less than any other.
On the stroke of half time, with North End a goal up and the visitors down to ten men after a sending off to Dennis Odoi, Joe Rafferty – who has been playing at right-back recently following Andrew Hughes’ return on the left hand side of defence – caught went in late on Fulham’s Joe Bryan with his studs up, earning the North End full-back a red card of his own.
While Preston were able to see that game out for the three points, the injury problems they already have in defence means Neil will not have wanted to deal with the three-match suspension handed to Rafferty, which will now see him miss Saturday’s home match against Luton, and trips to face Cardiff and Leeds over the Christmas week.
So could replace Rafferty at right-back for Preston in those three games?
Here, we take a look at three potential options to fill that position over the coming weeks.
The obvious option here, would of course be Darnell Fisher.
The 25-year-old started the season as North End’s first-choice right-back, and will surely return to that role once he makes his recovery from injury, having been so reliable in that role at the start of the campaign.
But having not featured for Preston in any of their four games, you wonder whether Neil will be willing to throw Fisher straight back into the action over such a busy period when he does return to full fitness.
Indeed, with it still not entirely clear just when Fisher will be available to feature again, Neil’s hands may well be tied on this one, regardless of what he wants to do.
Another player who Neil has hinted he could consider to take on that role at right-back, is Tom Clarke.
The club captain made his first appearance since August in the win over Fulham, after several months out through injury, meaning he does look to be further down the line than Fisher in his bid to return to full fitness.
However, Clarke is more naturally a centre back than a right-back, so it could be a risk to move him to a less natural position in the back four, particularly if Preston do find themselves short on numbers in the centre of defence again in the not too distant future – with Ben Davies among those yet to return to action for North End.
A less orthodox option, but still seemingly a viable one, is Alan Browne.
The centre midfielder has already filled in on the right-hand side of defence on a handful of occasions this season, not least when he put in an admirable performance in that position to help keep that dangerous West Brom attack relatively quiet earlier this month.
With Browne also wearing the captain’s armband that night, it seems Neil was comfortable to thrust that extra responsibility on him despite the fact he found himself in that unnatural position, meaning he may be willing to turn to him again in this situation should he need to in the next few weeks.