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Apr 2, 2007

The complete striker?

He is England's first goal-a-game striker since, well, Francis Jeffers, but despite scoring perhaps the simplest and cheekiest England goal of recent times David Nugent should have an international career that stretches beyond one cameo as substitute.

In part that is because of the current shortage of strikers at Steve McClaren's disposal. But even when nationality and availability are not the only criteria, there is a scramble for Nugent's services. Although Preston North End occupy a play-off place, his presence in the Premiership next season is surely guaranteed.

Before then, his elevation to the England team in their next Euro 2008 qualifying fixture against Estonia is equally likely. Wayne Rooney's frustration, seemingly with the McClaren regime, resulted in a caution in Andorra that rules him out, while Andrew Johnson's ineffectiveness in back-to-back starts counts against him.

Then there are the options Nugent provides. He has the pace that Peter Crouch lacks, albeit belied by an unusual running style. Unlike Jermain Defoe, he has the physique and willingness to lead the line. Furthermore, and in contrast to all the other England strikers, he is not tainted by recent failures on the international stage.

Nugent also represents something of an unknown quantity, even to many of those who have championed him for England or advocated his recruitment for a top-flight club. Despite successive play-off appearances, and the probability of a third this season, Preston are not among the higher-profile Championship clubs.

In 26 months after being plucked from League Two obscurity with Bury, Nugent has unquestionably developed into Deepdale's prize asset. Since North End's promotion push faltered in November, when they briefly topped the Championship table, each subsequent victory seems to have required a crucial contribution from Nugent; that Preston are dependent upon him has long since become apparent.

Upon his signing in 2005, he was the speedier foil to Richard Cresswell. Following the latter's move to Leeds, his duties have been more diverse.

Manager Paul Simpson has assembled a stable of seven strikers, consisting of one automatic choice and a myriad of alternatives alongside him. Nugent can be dovetailed with a workhorse (Brett Ormerod), a target man (Danny Dichio) or an out-and-out finisher (Neil Mellor).

After the recruitment of Michael Ricketts Nugent was even shunted out to the right flank against Southampton; though it wasn't until the second half when he moved inside that Nugent was at his devastating best.

Pace plays its part at all levels, but it is something the more ponderous lower-league defenders are particularly ill-equipped to deal with, and it has brought Nugent 14 league goals, a respectable but unexceptional tally.

Although his tap-in against Andorra suggests otherwise, Nugent, is not always the most predatory. That he does not take penalties - Graham Alexander's domain - is one reason why the Championship's most coveted striker is not the most prolific. He has been outscored by Cardiff's Michael Chopra and Southampton's Grzegorz Rasiak, who would command significantly lower fees than the £6 million at which Nugent is valued.

But the reasons why he has become Preston's first England player since Sir Tom Finney and the first outfield selection from outside the top flight since Sunderland's Michael Gray in 1999 surely include his Under-21 form.

With former manager Peter Taylor favouring a 4-3-3, Nugent's ability to forage as the lone striker, sometimes bereft of support, probably counted in his favour. Taylor's successor, Stuart Pearce, is among the Premiership managers who have become well acquainted with the route to Deepdale.

Gareth Southgate, yet to convince Mark Viduka to sign a new contract at Middlesbrough, is another. So, too, is Neil Warnock, whose January bid was rebuffed. In any case, Sheffield United could yet be playing in a division below Preston next season. For an Evertonian and a Scouser, links with Everton are inevitable - like Steven Gerrard and Joey Barton, Nugent hails from Huyton - though it is believed that David Moyes remains unconvinced.

Being scouted by Spurs, meanwhile, is almost a rite of passage for emerging English talent. Newcastle are also among the supposed suitors, with his height perhaps the attraction for a club that already possess the superior speed of Obafemi Martins and the convalescing Michael Owen.

Nugent has admitted that he needs to be playing Premiership football next season. Preston hope his parting gift will be promotion. Their sense of loss when he leaves will not be lessened by the knowledge that Bury will benefit - probably by a seven-figure sum - from his sale. At an initial £110,000 - a further £25,000 was payable when he made his England debut - Nugent nonetheless represents a wonderful signing by the former manager Billy Davies.

Operating outside the spotlight of the top flight has benefited Nugent when his form has dipped. The question, which exposure to the Premiership may prove next season, is if he has the quality to succeed at the very top.

Many will hope so. Only Nugent of the current England squad has plied his trade his trade in League Two and in working his way up the divisions, though skipping League One, Nugent represents something of a throwback.

Trevor Brooking, Mick Channon, Ray Wilson, Peter Taylor and Alf Ramsey have represented England as lower-division players. As predecessors in international football go, that beats being likened to Francis Jeffers.


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