A talent bound for the Premiership - and the scourge of it

Striker Nugent has Middlesbrough in his sights and a future with Everton in his heart
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The Independent Football

By James Corrigan

The odd Wayne and the occasional Theo apart, there is not a young English striker of more repute and greater potential than David Nugent. Strange then, that next Sunday will herald his first meeting with Premiership opposition when Middlesbrough make the perilous FA Cup fifth-round journey to Preston. But as this sportscar-driving 20-year-old says: "It's always been a struggle for me."

If that last bit sounds tongue-in-cheek, it isn't meant to. Nugent's career thus far has most definitely been a struggle, albeit relatively, when compared to his contemporary boy wonders. Indeed, this Scouser's fairytale rise has been more Boys from the Blackstuff than Roy of the Rovers, although he has stopped short of using the headbutt on employers while demanding "gissa job".

He certainly must have felt like it a few times, not least in last month's transfer window when his Championship side repelled the advances of Everton. Nugent has supported the Toffees since he learnt how to chew, and when he declares, "It's my dream to play for them and I have promised myself one day I will", one realises how frustrating it must have been to witness them being turned away. However endearing Nugent's entreatments of loyalty to Preston are, it is transparent the North End will never quite grab his heart like the Gwladys Street End.

"January was quite awkward," he admits, after some unfairly heavy prompting. "It was all just paper talk, I guess. But I've got to be honest that it was dead exciting being linked with them. I was like a kid, showing my mum the stuff in the papers, saying, 'Look, that's me in the same sentence as Everton'. It didn't happen, but not to worry because I'm really, really happy at Preston and much, much worse things have happened to me. I found out at quite a young age that football can be a cruel game."

Cruel? To the skinny 14-year-old who was flung out of the Liverpool Academy without so much as a reason it must have seemed downright barbaric. "What hurt most about all that," he says, his bitterness at the red side more understandable than that of your average Merseyside blue, "was that they didn't even tell me to my face. While I was training one day they phoned up my parents, who had to tell me when they picked me up, 'They don't want you, they say you're not good enough'. I then went around 11 clubs in the North-west and I didn't even get a trial. Bury eventually gave me an opportunity and I really thank them for that. I moved to Preston, scored nine goals in my first 19 games [he scored again yesterday in the 5-1 win at home against Luton] despite leaping two divisions, represented my country at Under- 21 level... So, so far, so good."

Nugent has glossed over a bit there, quite an important bit really. For in the two years it took him to graduate to the first team at Gigg Lane he was not just cleaning boots and marking out pitches. He also spent a good chunk of it fighting for his life. "Oh yeah, I also had meningitis," he says, recalling it as if it were a particularly annoying outbreak of acne. "I was in hospital a month or so and it did get quite serious. I didn't know much about it, though. I was just a 15-year-old who thought he was ill. Looking back now, it did take a few months out of my life, and I suppose it was quite frightening."

Not too much frightens Nugent, certainly not Middlesbrough, who, like any self-respecting Prestonian, he has as a lowly No 2 on his list of priorities. Before Viduka and Co come calling there is the little matter of a 25-match unbeaten run to continue at Southampton on Wednesday. "I know it's a cliché, but those points genuinely are more important and the Cup is just a bonus," he says. "After knocking on the door of the Premiership for the last few years, we really believe we can do it this year."

Last year Preston knocked so hard they located the spare key through the letterbox, before West Ham grabbed it off them in an anticlimactic play-off final. "Think of it, we were 90 minutes from the Premiership," he says wistfully, before confessing that they probably did think about it too much. "We'll be ready this time, you watch us."

Many fine judges who have this season tend to agree, most enthusiastically one Sir Tom Finney, the club's president and still biggest fan. When "the most complete English footballer of all time" talks about the Lilywhites he is prone to well up, although the eyes quickly dry when the conversation turns to young Nugent. "I'm telling you," Sir Tom said recently, "this boy's going to be well worthy of the Premiership."

So what sort of player can we expect when he (eventually) gets there? "People always ask me who am I most similar to and I usually answer 'Thierry Henry' - but I'm lying," he laughs. "I'd have to say Craig Bellamy - without the temperament. Although I do confess that I have a bit of a temper.

"I have a bit of pace as well and I've got to start using it, because I've targeted myself 15 goals this season. I was out for eight weeks earlier this season with an illness and that's held me back." Eight weeks? "Yeah, didn't I say? I was hospitalised with impetigo after an insect bit me."

His superstarred future might contradict it, but somebody up there plainly doesn't like him.