Preston currently hold the mantle as the most Irish club in English league football, a crown handed down through the years from Manchester United to Liverpool, to Steve Coppell's Reading and ultimately to Roy Keane's SunderIReland, renamed so because of the sheer size of their Irish contingent at every level.
Now it's Prestons, and they have had three players included in Martin O'Neill's provisional squad for the upcoming clash with Wales: Daryl Horgan, Andy Boyle, and Aiden McGeady. The surprise is that there is not a fourth Preston player included: Greg Cunningham. Ireland are looking decidedly light at left-back for the Wales game, with Robbie Brady's suspension leaving Stephen Ward as the only regular available to play.
But Cunningham has been omitted from the squad, with Wolves' Matt Doherty included instead. Balls.ie spoke to Dave Seddon, who covers Preston for the Lancashire Evening Post, to gauge whether the reaction to Cunningham's exclusion surprised Preston fan as much as it did Irish fans:
We thought he would probably get a call up. Even in the provisional squad. Greg has been superb since he came to Preston, and was an under the radar signing when we signed him: he arrived as a free transfer from Bristol City. No one knew a great deal about him, he hadn't played a great deal for Bristol.
But I was doing the stats today, at Preston he has made something like 78 starts, and has never been on the bench; he's been Mr. Consistent. He was our Player of the Year last year, and he is in the running again this year.
While I wouldn't expect him to go into the Ireland squad as first choice, we thought that he would get a chance to be around the squad and show what he can do. Roy Keane has been to Deepdale to watch him and the other Irish lads, as has Steve Guppy. So we're just a bit surprised.
Cunningham has mainly played as the left-back of a flat back four for Preston this season, although recent injuries forced him to briefly migrate to the opposite side: he played at right-back for a half against QPR and started the following game against Fulham in that position. He struggled somewhat, however, and reverted to left-back for the second half. Martin O'Neill was in the crowd that day, which perhaps explains why Cunningham will spend the forthcoming break at Preston's training ground.
One of the few Preston players to impress during a 3-1 defeat that O'Neill described as "wretched" was Aiden McGeady; an impression consistent with his last few months at Deepdale. McGeady has been the league's outstanding player of late, and won the Championship Player of the Month for February following a run of three goals and seven assists in the space of the year's shortest month.
Seddon gives an insight into McGeady's upturn in form:
He's showing that form he showed at Celtic. He's loving his football. Simon Grayson has a track record of getting players for whom it hasn't worked out elsewhere, putting his arm around them and saying 'we know you're still decent, so go out there and show us what you can do'. He has given him the reign to go and be a box of tricks up front, telling him to 'do a stepover, show us what you can do'. Since the end of December he has overcome a couple of injuries and he has really kicked on, and these last three months he has been mesmerizing. Premier League quality in the Championship.
Key to the McGeady Renaissance is the freedom afforded to him by Simon Grayson, pragmatism rewarding both player and manager:
Simon Grayson, the way he plays, his back four are very disciplined, as are the midfield two. But anyone up front or playing the wings are let off the cuff.
They'll swap wings, and there have been times during games that, if, McGeady is playing on the wing, and if the opposition full-backs are pushing on and need to be tracked, he will move McGeady infield to a number 10 position and move Callum Robinson to the left. That relieves McGeady of his defensive duties, and Preton have had quite a lot of joy doing it.
He's almost given McGeady a blank canvas.
McGeady has been to the fore in Preston matching their goal tally from the entirety of last season with ten games to spare. a man responsible for two of those goals thus far is Daryl Horgan, whom Seddon admits arrived with a reasonably big reputation, despite the erroneous reports that Preston were scouting Seanie Maguire, rather than Horgan, at last year's FAI Cup final.
Horgan, says Seddon, is reminiscent of the wing wizardry of which Preston's identity is hewn:
Preston fans love their wingers, this club has a long tradition of wingers - from Sir Tom Finney, of course - and they love a winger who is pacy, and will take on the full-back. Horgan does that. He is exciting: he has scored two goals, and contributed lots.
While Horgan made his debut against Arsenal in the FA Cup within a week of being eligible, his ex-Dundalk teammate Andy Boyle has had to wait a while longer for his debut: against Derby County a week ago. He was singled out for praise by Simon Grayson post-game, a disposition shared by Seddon:
Boyle has come in and played the last two games. Simon Grayson was reluctant to break up his centre-back partnership, but he's played the last two games. He always said it is easier to throw in a winger, rather than a defender. If Boyle had come in and made a ricket, it could have knocked his confidence, so the manager was just waiting for the right moment. He came in against Derby and was outstanding; I gave him the Man of the Match award in the paper. He kept his place the following week against Reading, and helped to clean sheet against a side in the playoffs.
He's a good player; good on the floor. He's good in the air too... just a good, solid centre-half.
The Irish influence at Preston doesn't end there. Alan Browne has been at Deepdale since 2014, and has racked up nearly 100 appearances, and has been a regular in the Preston midfield this season, playing thirty times. A former captain of the Ireland under-19s, Seddon believes Browne needs a little more experience before he is ready to make the breakthrough at senior international level:
He's a nice lad, Alan Bowne. He's got a good future ahead of him. He's a young lad but has made nearly a hundred appearances for North End. He is a good, hard worker but he's got a bit of improving to do, and experience to gain.
He's one for the future, but if anything, he needs to find himself a midfield position. Is he going to be a holder, and do the ratty work, or will he bomb on and be a box-to-box midfielder. He is an all-rounder at the moment.
Chatter around Preston in January concerned the departure of one Irish striker to make way for another. Ultimately the former happened, but the latter didn't. Dubliner Eoin Doyle earned notoriety earlier this season for scrapping with teammate Jermaine Beckford during a game, transgressions which earned each player a red card. Doyle has since moved to Portsmouth on loan, but Seddon believes that the confrontation with Beckford wasn't the reason he was pushed out: his lack of goals was the main reason behind his loaning out. He is now at Pompey under Paul Cook, his manager at Chesterfield in a prolific 32-goal spell between 2013 and 2015.
A return to form may force a rethink on Preston's part, but Seddon admits that Doyles days at Deepdale are numbered.
Doyle's departure strengthened the rumours linking Robbie Keane with a move to the club, but ultimately that didn't happen. It was far from idle speculation, however, as Seddon explains:
There was plenty in it. He has the same agent at McGeady. I think McGeady's agent was quite impressed with how North End handled the McGeady move. There was an interest from North End, but what Keane wanted in salary would probably have smashed our wage structure, and they decided it wasn't really worth the punt to do that. He would probably have been on five times the next highest earner at the club, so they decided it wasn't worth it.
There was a definite interest in him.
Preston did speak with his agent on a couple of occasions, and he was considered as the one who could push us forward to the playoffs, that extra bit of experience up front, but we've scored a lot of goals since then: others have stood up to the plate.
Promotion may be a forlorn hope for Preston this season (they are six points from the playoffs with nine games to go) but Seddon fancies their chances if the squad is kept together next season, and crucially, if a loan deal for McGeady can be renegotiated.
Should that happen, McGeady will be the latest Irishman remembered fondly on the terraces at Deepdale, along with the ever-consistent Kevin Kilbane and Brian Mooney, a Home Farm lad signed from the Liverpool reserves in the 1980s, who was remembered for the opposite:
We had the artifical pitch at Deepdale in the 80s and 90s, and Brian was known as the King of the Plastic. He couldn't play away from home on a muddy pitch, but put him on plastic, he was absolutely fantastic!