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Sean Maguire will be hoping to build on his impressive start with Preston. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Sean Maguire will be hoping to build on his impressive start with Preston. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Daniel McDonnell

When the official teamsheet was released at Deepdale on Saturday, the main discussion point was Preston North End’s choice of striker.

The cheers when Sean Maguire’s name was called over the tannoy suggested that fans were stimulated rather than shocked by his inclusion.

It’s rare that an arrival from the League of Ireland generates that reaction, especially in the monied world of the Championship, but word of the Kilkenny man’s ability has travelled fast.

Daryl Horgan and Andy Boyle have built respect for his background and Preston royalty have taken note. In the ‘Invincibles’ hospitality lounge overlooking the pitch, Alex Bruce (not that Alex Bruce) is satisfied with the team selection.

When they speak of Alex Bruce in Preston, they are talking of the 64-year-old Scot who was a prolific striker for North End through the ’70s and early ’80s.

In the club’s all-time goalscoring charts he only trails Tom Finney, with a haul of 171 goals earning him legend status.

“I’m looking forward to seeing Maguire play,” said the affable Bruce.

The recruit from Cork City had an idea the call from manager Alex Neil was coming for the clash with Sheffield Wednesday.

“You don’t want to get your hopes up,” said the 23-year-old.

“But the manager picks the team before the game and then you have to get your head screwed on. I knew I just had to perform and keep doing what I’ve been doing, treat every game the same, even though obviously it was a bit different to the last month playing in the League of Ireland.”

The contrast is marked. Turner’s Cross is a terrific venue, but the first day of the Championship season is undoubtedly a step up the food chain.

Over 18,000 were present at Deepdale, with almost a third of the crowd made up by a boisterous away section reflecting the size of Wednesday’s support base and the expectations that come with it. They are one of the favourites for promotion, having reached the play-offs last season.

Centre-halves Glenn Loovens and Tom Lees provided a solid and intimidating base. For the fresh face at this level, it was a stern test.

“They’re two 6ft 2in centre-halves, very strong lads but we had a gameplan that we worked on all week,” Maguire explained.

Advanced

There is an Irish element to it. Alan Browne, another former Cork City player, is used in a more advanced role than normal, closest to lone striker Maguire, with the width coming from Callum Robinson and Tom Barkhuizen.

It was a frenetic battle, typical Championship fare, and Maguire initially found it difficult to really show what he can do with the ball at his feet.

However, as the game progressed, he impressed with clever touches. When he finally got in a one-on-one position, he fashioned the opportunity to call Keiren Westwood into action.

“The boys were asking me was I a bit nervous,” he reflected. “Obviously, when the team was named I was a bit, but when you walk out on the field, I think those nerves go away and, as the game went on, I felt myself getting better and more confident.”

After the break, Preston stepped their performance up a level and Maguire was a part of that, with one driving run creating a chance that prompted the first song in his honour.

Wednesday were pegged back and never really look too dangerous against harder working opponents.

Up in the stands, Bruce observed that Maguire would thrive with a bit of support next to him and it arrived in the shape of the imposing Jordan Hugill, who took a central berth, with Maguire switched wide.

Birmingham made a second bid for Hugill last Friday and he may not be here at the end of the month.

With 15 minutes left, Maguire was withdrawn to an ovation from the Preston fans and cheers ringing in his ears, with Paul Gallagher sent in to help on set-pieces.

Eventually, a barrelling run from Hugill won a penalty that Daniel Johnson converted to send the locals home happy.

Their captain, Greg Cunningham, led the celebrations at the end, the Galwegian having starred at left-back after recovering from a broken leg to make the season opener.

With Cunningham in this form, Kevin O’Connor will have to be patient. Boyle and Eoin Doyle also missed out on the matchday squad, while Horgan was on the bench and should feature in the next week.

This particular game was a war of attrition, but Maguire was satisfied with how he came through it.

“I’m pleased the way I performed,” he said. “And now I’m hopefully going to build on that. I’m going to get better and better playing at a higher level.

“You’re going out there in front of almost 20,000, but you’ve got to approach it like any other game you’ve played. To cap it all with a win is a dream debut.”

He is already starting to feel settled and the Irish legion was an obvious attraction when the switch was mooted.

Before kick-off, his former Irish underage team-mate Browne sought him out for a hug and good luck wishes.

“Browney has been a big help to me the last few weeks,” he said.

“Beyond that, actually, the last few months since I joined he’s asked me what I need in every single way and that’s why it was great to be playing next to him.”

O’Connor was his best pal at Cork and they were never too far apart, but they will not be housemates after finding places to live.

“I’m 23 now and he’s 22 and we have to go our separate ways,” Maguire laughed. There is an exciting diary ahead. Tomorrow, there’s an EFL Cup date at Accrington – a symbolic affair for Maguire given he spent a season there on loan at the end of his stay at West Ham.

If he gets the chance to play, Accrington will encounter a reformed individual. If he’s left out, it would be a compliment, as it would indicate he’s firmly in the plans for Leeds at Elland Road.

“Their first home game, 30,000, it’s a bit surreal thinking about that,” he said.

Look past that, there’s matches with Derby, Reading and Middlesbrough before an international break that could have meaning for him if Martin O’Neill takes notice of his new status.

Strangely enough, there’s already a photo of him on the wall in Deepdale chatting to Robbie Brady after his goal in a pre-season friendly that really set Preston mouths talking. His ambitions in the Irish department have been made clear before now.

“My main focus now is to stay in the team, perform to the level that I should be performing and then when the squad is named I’ll be hoping to make that step up,” he asserted.

There is no reason to fear it.

Indo Sport



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