“Yeah, it’s changed over the last couple of years. When I first came over, probably half the changing room was Irish.”
It’s Thursday afternoon when I reach him on the phone, and Sean Maguire, just “chilling out” on a last day of rest before starting to climb the Championship mountain with Preston North End again, is reflecting on how Deepdale is no longer such a deep shade of green.
A little over a year ago, Preston housed the biggest Irish contingent in the league, as Maguire rubbed shoulders with Alan Browne, Callum Robinson, Graham Burke, Daryl Horgan, Andy Boyle, Kevin O’Connor, Eoin Doyle, and Adam O’ Reilly.
Now it’s just Maguire, Browne, O’Reilly and recent signing Joe Rafferty — previously capped at underage level — representing the tricolour in Preston, as departures, either permanent or of the loan variety, have thinned out the green brigade in Alex Neil’s squad.
“That’s football for you,” Maguire muses, before tipping O’Reilly as one to watch.
Like his fellow Corkman Alan Browne, the 18-year-old is a graduate of Ringmahon Rangers but, according to Maguire, that’s not where the similarities end.
“He reminds me in a way of Browney, that kind of goal-scoring midfielder,” he observes. “And he’s tough, he doesn’t go into anything half-hearted.”
Despite significant injury problems having interrupted Maguire’s own momentum at various times since joining the club from Cork City in 2017, the striker is now very much an established figure at Deepdale as he prepares for his third season in the Championship.
“I feel that when I have been fit — 100% fit — I’ve made my mark at Preston,” he says. “The first year I did very well. Last year, not as well as I thought I would. But when you’re going through a bad situation, like being out injured, you need to be mentally strong.
“I think that with my experiences at West Ham, Accrington, and Dundalk, you learn to take the lows with the highs. That’s something I came to grips with. I feel I’ll have a long career in England, touch wood, and I feel I can definitely kick on now and have my best season yet. I’ve a good feeling about this year.”
Part of that confidence is based on a belief the hamstring problems which have bedevilled him in recent times are under control.
“Basically it’s the best I’ve felt in over a year,” he enthuses. “Last season I was in and out with injury and when I did come back for the last few months, I didn’t do particularly well.
“But I feel I’m in a better place physically and mentally now. I feel really healthy.
“Last year I didn’t have a break — even when I was on holidays I was working in the gym — so I said to myself when I was done with Ireland this summer that I’d switch off for two or three weeks, which I did. I think you can see it in the way I’m training and playing, I feel a lot more confident, I feel like where I was the first year I was at Preston. Physically as well, I just feel really fit, I feel like — obviously, touch wood — I’ve no injury issues. Last year I was ruled out for 12 weeks just before the first game so this is the first time I’ll be involved in our first game of the season in two years, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Millwall away provide the opposition for Preston in today’s Championship opener (kick-off 3pm), just the first of many tests to come in what can be a punishing campaign.
“It’s a long season, 46 games,” Maguire observes. “It’s physically and mentally demanding. You have a game on a Saturday and a game on a Tuesday or Wednesday and there are stages in the season when you could be playing two or three games a week.
“I have more experience of dealing with that now. I’m only 25 but I’m probably one of the more experienced players in the squad, which is a bit mad, because I’ve probably only played the bones of 50 games for Preston in two years. So the main thing for me this season is to stay fit because, if I do, I know I’ll score goals.
“For the club, our realistic goal is definitely to finish in the top six. One of the reasons we didn’t last year is because we missed a lot of key players throughout the season to long-term and short-term injury — at one stage around Christmas for about four or five games we were missing 12 first team players. We have a big squad and a young squad and if we do keep everyone fit — and be a bit more consistent — I feel we can make that top six.”
Maguire doesn’t disagree with the consensus Leeds are the team to beat this year but he certainly doesn’t expect Marcelo Bielsa’s side to have it all their own way in what is always an intensely competitive battle for a place in the Premier League.
“Leeds are probably the best team I played against last season,” he says. “Them and Sheffield United. Sheffield United play a unique kind of football and it worked for them last year so it’ll be interesting to see how they get on in the Premier League.
“But I reckon there are about 13 or 14 teams in the Championship who’d fancy themselves getting into the top six. I don’t think too many might fancy us at the start but I reckon we’re a dark horse who will catch a lot of people’s eyes and be up there at the end of the season.”
Maguire hit the ground running in his first pre-season game, claiming a hat-trick in a 4-1 victory over National League side AFC Fylde. If he can carry that kind of form into the real thing then he has every chance of realising his ambition to “hit the high double digits” this season — something you’d like to think would be as good for country as it would be for club, bearing in mind that Maguire, first capped in 2017, has yet to open his international account and is still looking to complete 90 minutes under Mick McCarthy in the current European Championship campaign.
“It’s been a bit stop-start, my international career, and my first competitive start, away to Gibraltar, wasn’t ideal,” he concedes. “But if I can start this season well, I’ll be looking to put myself in the manager’s thoughts and just kick-start my international career.”
But, first, he and Preston must venture into the Lions’ Den this afternoon, in every way an appropriate first port of call as one of the most rewarding but also unforgiving leagues in world football gets underway again.