David Nugent has just completed a series of media engagements when a photographer asks, more in hope than expectation, whether he would accompany him out and around Deepdale for an atmospheric shot against the one side of Preston North End's historic home untouched by modernisation. The request meets with an enthusiastic response, and the prized striker takes to the streets behind a surprised snapper and passes even more astonished onlookers as they go.
Such obliging reactions are not usually associated with the £6m targets of several Premiership admirers, as fame and commitments dramatically increase, but Nugent has embraced the attention that has poured his way in the two remarkable years since he left the fourth tier of English football in a £100,000 transfer from Bury. As he will on Sunday, when the BBC cameras turn their gaze on the 21-year-old and Paul Simpson's Championship team as they entertain Manchester City in an FA Cup fifth-round tie with rich potential for a televised upset.
"It will be a tough game but I play well when the cameras are there! I always seem to score when I'm on TV," admits Nugent, who showed Stuart Pearce his potency at close range last week when he scored in the City manager's first game in charge of England Under-21s against Spain.
"The more people who are watching the more I seem to put on a performance. I know it shouldn't be like that, but I'm a bit of a showman when it comes to being on the television. People always ask whether I can do it against Premiership defences and Sunday will be a good opportunity."
Those words may appear arrogant in print, ripe to be pinned to the walls of the City changing room, but they are not delivered with an egotistical tongue. There is genuine enthusiasm for the spotlight in Nugent, and for the endless speculation that spoke of moves to Sheffield United, Middlesbrough and Everton throughout the last transfer window, for the simple reason that it serves to remind him of what he so nearly lost.
Seven years ago, Nugent could easily have provided further evidence to the argument Sam Allardyce articulated last weekend for the dearth of talent available to the England manager Steve McClaren once a few leading lights in the squad succumb to injury. "We are becoming a fat, lazy nation," said the Bolton manager, who added: "Very often these days you'll find even an academy kid who gets released at 18, instead of going down the leagues and coming back, actually packs in football. Doesn't bother. Just forgets it."
Nugent was left with that stark choice when rejected by Liverpool at the age of 14. Today he offers a rare antidote to Allardyce's bleak assessment; a fiercely driven character who has come back through the lower leagues to the precipice of the Premiership, and open enough to admit being spurred on by television exposure, transfer rumours and the determination to show Liverpool made a rare error of judgement.
"It is hard for a young lad to be released by Liverpool at 14," he recalls. "But I think you've got more of a chance of coming through the lower leagues when you're released at 14 than 16 or 17, and I was determined. I've had other setbacks with injuries and illness but I was determined to keep going. Just after I was released by Liverpool I contracted viral meningitis. It wasn't a nice time by any means but what has happened since has been wonderful. Now I would say the best thing that ever happened to me was being released by Liverpool. It's not nice to be told you're not good enough so it's wonderful to be where I am now and it would be great to go into the Premiership with Preston and see their faces. It would be nice to think they'd have to buy me for £20m in a few years' time when they could have had me for nothing."
The spurned Nugent did not have to wait long for his invitation back into the game. When his Sunday league team, Whiston Juniors, entered a five-a-side tournament in Blackpool the following season, his performances caught the eye of a Bury scout who contacted the club's youth-team coach, Andy Feeley. "We lost my first game for the youth team 4-3 but I scored a hat-trick in front of the Bury chairman and he offered me a youth contract there and then," explains the striker, who made his senior debut for the Shakers aged 16.
Eighteen goals in 58 League appearances for the Gigg Lane outfit brokered a move to Deepdale in January 2005 and the ascent has continued in Preston's flirtation with promotion. This season has yielded 16 goals in total, including three while accomplishing the increasingly rare achievement of playing regularly for the England Under-21s without having a Premiership club stamped on his passport. It is a situation the 21-year-old intends to remedy this summer.
The forward, who studied Steve McManaman when he started out as a fledgling winger at Liverpool, was the subject of a rebuffed £6m bid from Sheffield United last month. They, and others, will be back, and though Nugent is itching to move into a new home under construction in Wirral, the length of his residence there will rest on Preston's fortunes in the final four months of this campaign.
Nugent admits: "I'm glad the window has closed and I can concentrate on playing for Preston but I loved all the speculation when it was open. I got a buzz from seeing my name in the paper and it spurred me on, knowing all these big teams wanted me and I've got a £6m price tag on my head. I love all that, on and off the pitch. I seem to be getting noticed a lot more in Liverpool now when I go shopping with my mates. People are coming over and asking if I'm David Nugent. I'm used to it now in Preston but it seems a bit weird in my hometown, although what happened in the past does help me keep things in perspective.
"I want to be in the Premiership. Bury gave me my chance and I'll always be thankful for that and now I've taken things further with Preston. I'm happy where I am at the moment and, hopefully, in the summer I'll be a Premiership player with Preston. That's what I want. If it doesn't happen I may have to further my career with someone else, but my main aim is to score goals and to take Preston up."
Should North End fall short, and despite Simpson's outstanding first season, their supporters will be consumed by dread if they miss out on automatic promotion, having lost in four of the last eight play-offs, Nugent is clear about his future. "I want to play for Everton, there's no question about that," he states. "Everyone knows I'm an Everton fan. My hero was Duncan Ferguson and, hopefully, I will play for them in my career and I'm confident I will do. I used to wear my Everton top underneath my Liverpool training top, I hated wearing red at the time, but they gave me my chance to play at the School of Excellence and it was great there.
"Now I've moved on. I am doing well at the moment with Preston but only when I am in the Premiership would I say I have proved those people wrong."
Nugent certainly has the background for a top-flight career. As a native of Huyton, Merseyside, he hails from the same Bluebell Estate as Steven Gerrard and this Sunday the FA Cup brings him into direct competition with another local who has prospered on the Premiership stage, the Manchester City midfielder Joey Barton.
"It's nice to see so many Scousers doing well, and especially from Huyton. It seems to be a healthy breeding ground for footballers for some reason," says Nugent. "Steven Gerrard's family home is about 100 yards behind mine. I wouldn't say I know him to talk to but our families know each other and I'll say hello when we find ourselves at the same party. He and Joey are obviously the two main-hitters to come out of Huyton at the moment. Hopefully, I will be next to come along in the Premiership and to represent England."Reuse content