A real education, a surprise decision, a trademark celebration and a desire to make an impact - what new boy Harrop could bring to Town
- Credit: PA
Ipswich Town have completed the signing of Josh Harrop, on loan from Preston North End until the end of the season. Here we take a look at the Blues' newest signing and where he might fit in at Portman Road.
Top class pedigree
Josh Harrop arrives at Portman Road with arguably the greatest footballing education English football has to offer behind him.
He’s a graduate of Manchester United’s famed youth academy, coming through alongside current United regular Scott McTominay and leading the Red Devils’ U23 scoring charts to force a senior debut under Jose Mourinho on the final day of the 2016/17 Premier League season.
He marked his senior bow with a goal just 15 minutes in but, somewhat surprisingly, turned down a new contract at a club he first joined at seven soon after in a bid to kickstart his senior career in the Championship with Preston.
"If you're getting into your 20s and not playing then you have to be thinking 'I need to go play' if you believe in your talent,” Harrop said, having joined North End at 21.
"You can't fall into the traps of the lifestyle of a footballer, you have to put all of that to the side and focus on actual football.
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“I'm very much driven in the fact I want to be the best player I can be."
He’s played plenty of games over the last three-and-a-half years but this maybe wasn’t quite what the United graduate was hoping for as he looked to get things going following his Old Trafford departure.
Harrop played 39 games during his first Preston season but just 12 were starts, with two of his 27 appearances as a substitute coming as Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich completed a sweep of North End during 2017/18.
Harrop played 36 games for Preston last season (18 starts and 18 from the bench) as he returned to action following a knee ligament injury, which ended his 2018/19 season in October, finding the net eight times as his goals came in clusters (three in three games twice and two in two games once).
But it’s been a different story this season, with just one of his five league appearances coming from the start.
His lack of involvement was unexpected, given he signed a new three-year deal at Deepdale in the summer and was internally earmarked as being one of few players at the club capable of taking the step up to the Premier League, as the Lilywhites flirted with last season’s play-offs.
In total he’s made 39 starts over four seasons, played a further 55 games as a substitute and has scored 13 goals.
So why are Preston loaning him out?
Manager Alex Neil has called for him to be more consistent while, it’s understood, having issues with the defensive side of Harrop’s game.
"I think he's just got to be more consistent with his game," said Neil. "What we've seen with Josh, is him be very effective on his day.
"For any forward player, you've got to have those days more often than not.”
Speaking last month, following Harrop’s substitute appearance in place of Ben Pearson in North Ends’s draw with Wycombe, Neil added: "We were disappointed we didn't get him in the game more but there's an onus on Josh - he's got to take the game by the scruff of the neck.
"That's what your task is, I just think we get so hung up on tactics and how you effect things; see at the end of the day, you go and watch the best teams and the best players make the difference.
"And when Ben Pearson was on the pitch, he was making the difference for our team, and when he came off, it became difficult."
As well as Pearson, Harrop’s found himself behind the likes of Daniel Johnson, Ryan Ledson, Alan Browne and Tom Bayliss in the midfield pecking order this season and, when he has played, he’s been playing out-of-position on the left flank. His route to the first-team has become even tougher now North End have brought in highly-rated Doncaster midfielder Ben Whiteman.
It’s clear Harrop has a future at Deepdale, given he’s contracted until 2023, but there’s also a sense he needs to develop further if he’s to force his way into a side with a good depth of midfield talent which just got that little bit deeper.
So where will he play for Town?
This is where Ipswich were able to swing the deal in their favour, beating Hull City to his signature and offering him a level of football and role the Tigers couldn’t commit to.
He’s understood to have been earmarked to play as an attacking midfielder, with Harrop preferring to play through the middle and wanting to avoid playing wide.
Ipswich, who have been looking to add creativity to their side this month, can offer him that, with the 25-year-old likely to either play as the No.10 in a 4-2-3-1 system or as one of the two midfielders in front of Andre Dozzell in a subtly different 4-3-3.
His ability to play wide will add another string to his bow, of course, but it’s not where we should expect to see him play.
"I do really enjoy playing both of those positions, in the number eight and number ten," he said recently. "I also don't mind playing off the left.
"I think when I have played in my career, I've always played in either of those positions - mainly more central but as of recent off the left.
"I just enjoy being on the pitch and being able to score goals so that's my main focus."
What can he bring to the side?
Creativity. That’s why Ipswich have brought him in.
He’s good on the ball, has an excellent first touch and a clever footballing brain.
Three of his eight Preston goals last season came from outside the box, while he also has an ability to break into the area. That’s something Ipswich have struggled to do so far this season.
Another notable attribute is his ability from set-pieces, with Harrop’s first three Preston goals during 2017/18 all coming directly from free-kicks. That, as well as a good delivery from corners, is something Town have lacked since the early months of Luke Garbutt’s loan spell with the Blues last season.
Clearly consistency is an issue but, dropping down into League One, the hope will be that the former United youngster can find his groove.
What his arrival means for others
On the face of it, Town are well-stocked with No.10s if everyone’s fit. The trouble is they’ve not been.
Teddy Bishop has arguably been the most effective of the attacking midfielders this season but he’s only just back from an ankle problem, with Harrop’s arrival likely to lessen the burden on a player who has had trouble staying fit regularly.
It may also mean Alan Judge, out of contract in the summer, has to work that bit harder for minutes on the field while it could also mean loan moves away for Idris El Mizouni and Armando Dobra.
The signing of Harrop means Jack Lankester may be pushed back to a wide role and, now Flynn Downes is fit and partnering Dozzell, will make it harder for Jon Nolan, Emyr Huws and Cole Skuse (if and when he’s fit) to find a way into the team.
What’s his injury record like?
The cruciate injury suffered in September 2018 cost him nearly a year but, while recovering well from that, has been suffering with another knee and then a hamstring injury of late.
Neil said, recently: "He had an injection in his knee and it was causing him some pain.
"It wasn't like a crippling injury where he couldn't run or do anything, it was just sort of irritating more than anything else.
On his ongoing hamstring problem, Neill added: “It’s a bit of a strange one with Josh, he’s been on and off training. He’s been coming out to train thinking it will be okay but then had to go back in because it’s sore.”
A trademark celebration
Hopefully he’ll be a regular contributor in the goals column for the Blues and, if he is, it’s likely he’ll show off his trademark goal celebration which sees him put his hand up to his ear like a phone as and the other arm stretched wide.
It’s a nod to a private joke between him and his former Manchester United team-mate Kieran O’Hara, currently Burton’s No.1 goalkeeper.