Making of a United refusenik

Jon Culley meets the talented spearhead of Preston's progress
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The Independent Online

After ending a 19-year exile in the lower divisions, Preston North End would be content for now merely to keep their new place on the Nationwide ladder. Already, though, the talk is of loftier possibilities at Tom Finney's proud old club.

After ending a 19-year exile in the lower divisions, Preston North End would be content for now merely to keep their new place on the Nationwide ladder. Already, though, the talk is of loftier possibilities at Tom Finney's proud old club.

October League tables can be painfully misleading, but 10 matches into their First Division life the team David Moyes guided skilfully to the Second Division title find only three sides in front of them. Preston, the first Football League champions in 1889, have not played in the highest company since they were relegated in 1961, but are as equipped now to return as at any point in the intervening years. Indeed, they are developing a 30,000-seat stadium at Deepdale in readiness.

The club's bright start has also raised exciting thoughts in the mind of their leading goalscorer, the 23-year-old Mancunian Jon Macken, who three years ago took the bold decision to turn down a contract offer from Manchester United and submit himself to a much less comfortable and highly uncertain future.

"It was a difficult step to take because I'd been at Old Trafford since I was 11, but I knew that if I stayed I would have had to wait another couple of years for a chance, if it ever came," he said. "I made the reserve side twice, playing alongside Andy Cole and Paul Scholes, which was brilliant experience, but there was a lot of competition. I was a first-year professional and there were young YTS lads coming up and older players who had been on the fringes for a couple of years, all competing for the same places.

"The good thing was that I was offered another contract. It is nice to look back and know that I made the decision rather than being told I wasn't wanted any more.

"It was hard at first. I was only 19 but I went straight into the team at Preston, which meant that after never having played in a League game I was suddenly having to face crowds of 15,000 people, which was quite intimidating.

"It probably went to my head a bit at the start and I did need time to settle down, but I knew fairly quickly it had been the right move."

After scoring three times in his first five matches, including his home debut, Macken went six months without a goal during that first season but still finished with eight, a total he bettered by one in 1998-99. It was last season that the knack of hitting the target consistently really clicked, and among the factors behind Preston's championship success, Macken's 22 League goals rank highly.

So far, the transition to the First Division has not disturbed the flow. Despite missing three matches with a hamstring injury, he has four goals so far, plus another three in the Worthington Cup. And Moyes has his fingers crossed that the lack of a fixture this weekend - a scheduled Friday- night trip to Blackburn was postponed - will allow him to return in top fettle for next Saturday's encounter with Tranmere, especially now Preston's American signing Brian McBride is out for three months after developing a blood clot.

"So far I've found the First Division all right," Macken said. "It is less physical than the Second and opponents seem to pay you a little bit more respect, although the pace is quicker. I knew the defences were going to be tougher but we are a good side with a good spirit and I'm lucky in that the way we play suits me, because I like balls played to feet and passes I can run on to.

"There is no doubt it is a harder league, but we have surprised a few people. We found it difficult in the two games we have lost, against Birmingham and Bolton, but they are the best we have faced so far and we would have done better against Bolton if we had taken our chances.

"I expect the better sides to pick up around Christmas, which will be the real test for us. We know that however much you feel you can be a Premiership side, the hardest thing is getting out of this division. But Manchester City went from the Second to the Premiership in two seasons, which proves it is possible."

It would throw up a challenge, moreover, to which a former United man would be only too willing to respond.

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