Over the last five years, there hasn’t been a great deal for Preston fans to shout about. A winding-up order, a relegation, the farcical Graham Westley era and another play-off defeat to Rotherham all came within four seasons.
That all changed just a month ago, as manager Simon Grayson led his side from the despair of missing out on automatic promotion on the final day of the season, to the ecstacy of ending the famous play-off course with a 4-0 win over Swindon Town at Wembley.
Now back in the Championship for the first time since relegation in 2011, Preston will be hoping to strengthen their squad and establish themselves as a Championship club once again – but have so far focused on keeping the promotion-winning side intact.
The likes of Tom Clarke, Paul Huntington, John Welsh and Chris Humphrey have all signed new contracts with the club, whilst Paul Gallagher and Jermaine Beckford have signed permanently following successful loan spells.
Yet, the most important deal so far came last week, as striker Joe Garner agreed a new three-year extension to stay with North End for the foreseeable future.
The 27-year-old has not only established himself as one of the deadliest strikers in the Football League having hit 51 goals in 104 games for Preston, but has become a Deepdale hero, writing himself into folklore over the last two-and-a-half years.
Garner may have been born in Blackburn, but he grew up supporting Preston – a fact which hasn’t gone unnoticed during his time with the club. With the modern game permeated by an obsession with money, it’s natural for fans to feel detached from their club as they watch men deemed as mercenaries play with only their next move on their mind.
But in the case of Garner, supporters are able to watch a player simply living his dream of playing for the club he supports. Garner’s passion is infectious, and his all-action displays have reignited a team and a fanbase which had struggled for momentum since relegation, providing never-ending commitment to the cause and persistently rallying fans, as he did at Wembley…even though Preston were already 4-0 up.
Preston fans know that the Garner situation is a rare one, and one they may not see for some time. Few players get the chance to become a hero at their boyhood club in the modern era, but that’s certainly what Garner has been able to do in just over two years at Preston.
Now, just one year after penning a two-year extension, Garner has once again tied his future to Preston, extending his contract until 2018 – a deal which will take him into his 30’s. Having scored so many goals for Preston, Garner could have easily looked for a move away this summer, with no shortage of suitors looking at the possibility of luring him away from his boyhood club. Instead, Garner has made it clear that he is going nowhere, and will be staying with North End as they return to the Championship.
The deal also gives Garner a chance to finally prove himself in the second tier. Disappointing spells with Nottingham Forest and Watford have made many believe that Garner is a League One-level striker who will now struggle to score goals in the Championship.
However, now in a team which is virtually built around him, Garner has flourished, and will be expected to continue his blossoming partnership with Jermaine Beckford next season. The duo hit a combined 45 goals for North End last season, and if the can even manage half of that total in the Championship, their new contracts will be money well spent.
The funny thing about Garner’s city-wide hero status in Preston is that it hasn’t always been this way. Fans actually derided Garner having failed to score in his first few months at Deepdale, with questions over his future after just six months at the club. With the likes of Kevin Davies, Iain Hume and Stuart Beavon in the ranks, Garner was considered to be the fourth choice striker at Deepdale heading into the 2013/14 season, with many supporters suggesting that he had no future at North End.
Now, the news of his new contract has been met with delight and celebration, with fans no longer having to live with the fear and dread of losing their favourite player of recent years. Garner’s goalscoring exploits and love for the club have certainly won fans over, arguably to the point where he can now be considered as the symbol of Preston’s revival under Simon Grayson – and long may it continue.