Preston extended their unbeaten run to nine games on Tuesday night.
The Championship side drew 1-1 with promotion-chasing Middlesbrough at Deepdale, and a familiar face was on the scoresheet.
Alan Browne opened the scoring for the hosts, engineering some space in the box before rifling the ball into the bottom corner.
Marcus Tavernier equalized for Tony Pulis’ visitors in the second half, and both sides were forced to settle for a point.
Browne produced an energetic performance and was named man of the match after yet another impressive performance for Preston, who are now 15th in the Championship on 22 points.
The Republic of Ireland international, who was named as the Championship club’s player of the year last season, has been in excellent form of late, scoring once and registering two assists in the club’s 4-1 demolition of Blackburn Rovers on Saturday.
Browne set up Preston’s first two goals before rounding off the victory with an excellent left-footed volley.
The 23-year-old has now scored six league goals – and provided three assists – for Alex Neil’s side this season, with only his international teammate Callum Robinson (nine) finding the net on more occasions for the club.
Interestingly, all of these goals and assists have come at Deepdale, and Browne has acknowledged the need for him to chip in with more goals on the road.
That said, no Championship midfielder can match his 12 goals in 2018, which is quite impressive given Preston’s difficult start to the current campaign.
The Irishman has a reputation for scoring spectacular goals, and one of his strikes was nominated for the September Championship Goal of the Month.
However, he is also adept at timing his runs into the box – he has scored five headers in 2018 alone.
🎥 @Alan__Browne got his sixth goal of the season yesterday with another fine finish at the end of a lovely team move! 👌
— Preston North End FC (@pnefc) November 28, 2018
There is also a maturity to his game.
The central midfielder captained Preston for the first time earlier this season, and received praise from his manager after being benched (due to “mental fatigue”) against Bristol City before the international break.
“Alan got dropped out at Bristol City,” Alex Neil revealed.
“I just felt he was showing signs of fatigue, mentally as much as anything else. I’ve asked a lot of him since I have been here and maybe that had an effect.
“I had a good chat with Alan, dropped him out but in the last two games he has shown why he is a player who I rely on so much and trust.
“He was sensational when we beat Blackburn, and again on Tuesday night Alan came up trumps.”
Given Ireland’s well-documented lack of goalscorers, could the Corkman become a key player for the Boys in Green?
Browne has yet to score an official goal for the Boys in Green, but he did score a fine goal against Celtic for Ireland in Scott Brown’s testimonial.
The former Cork City midfielder made his debut against Mexico last year, and has won just three international caps to date.
One of those caps came on a rainy away night in Paris which saw the Boys in Green outclassed by world champions in waiting France, a game which made it difficult for Browne to express his creativity or forays forward from midfield.
Injury ruled him out of Ireland’s first Nations League clash against Wales, and he was an unused substitute in Ireland’s next two games.
He missed out on the most recent international break through injury again, meaning he has yet to make any real impact in the green jersey.
Despite not being a regular under O’Neill, Browne did earn praise from the former Ireland boss.
“He’s a strong-running player, and I think he’s improving,” the 66-year-old stated last year.
“It’s nice to see. He’s become a settled fixture now with Preston. Again it’s encouraging. He’s obviously got a bit of work to do. There are some midfield players who are possibly in front of him at the moment but he’s got a great attitude.”
Mick McCarthy – who was confirmed as O’Neill’s successor last week – has vowed to play with attacking intent after replacing Martin O’Neill as Republic of Ireland manager, and has also claimed that he won’t be setting his team out in a 4-4-2 formation.
McCarthy spoke of the importance of establishing dominance in midfield, and Browne has the potential to become a key player at international level moving forward.
The former Ipswich manager will have come up against Browne in the Championship, and will be aware of the midfielder’s exploits in the division.
Goals have been hard to come by for Ireland since the retirement of Robbie Keane, and there is no clear prolific goalscorer in the current squad.
Shane Long’s goalscoring touch has eluded him, Jon Walters has entered the twilight of his career, and Sean Maguire and Callum Robinson – while promising players – have yet to score at international level.
Aiden O’Brien has scored one international goal, and Michael Obafemi is a teenager who has yet to even represent the U21 Ireland side.
Goals will be needed from midfield, and Browne could be the perfect option in an attacking midfield role. He operates best as a number 10 behind a striker, and already has a great understanding with Robinson at club level.
James McClean and Robbie Brady are capable of chipping in with goals, but Ireland’s other midfielders have offered little goal threat.
Jeff Hendrick has largely struggled to reproduce his Euro 2016 form for Ireland since that summer in France, while the likes of Harry Arter, James McCarthy, and David Meyler are more defensive players.
Any two of Ireland’s other central midfielders – Arter, McCarthy, Meyler, Hourihane, Hendrick – could operate in a two behind Browne, with the Preston midfielder playing at the tip of a midfield triumvirate for the Boys in Green.
The 23-year-old has had to be patient at international level, but this could be his time.