It doesn’t feel like too long ago that Kenny McLean was sending a dipping volley into the bottom corner and pushing Norwich City’s title charge through yet another gear.

That was the second of two goals in the Canaries’ 3-2 win over Bristol City on 23 February 2019, and the Scot’s brace wasn’t an especially surprising occurrence at that time.

He’d arrived in England seven months earlier a fiercely attacking ‘number eight’, whose exploits north of the border had taken him to the wings of Aberdeen’s setup and even seen him develop a reputation for scoring free-kicks.

His role in Daniel Farke’s system was a sort of light taming of his role with the Dons and at St. Mirren, a very minor curbing of his instinct to maraud. He was only slightly less likely to be found breaking into the box, and there was clearly still expectation that he’d weigh in with goals and assists from midfield.

It was only in Farke’s second Championship title victory that McLean became a truly deep-lying player, albeit a ball-playing one with Oliver Skipp alongside him to provide the muscle. But from there he’s slowly slid from excited all-rounder to solid stalwart and occasional centre-back.

In many ways his performance in City’s 1-0 win over Preston North End was the epitome of this development.

The 32-year-old buzzed around doing what he’s become known for; he battled, he duelled, he even cleared off the line and, of course, he covered plenty of ground. That was what the visitors needed in a deliciously hectic late-season clash of the play-off race titans.

It was a stereotypical northern away day, and in many ways what was needed was a stereotypical reliable midfielder. Signs of the once-heralded attacking presence were largely absent as he anxiously looked for team-mates with his idiosyncratic gallops forward.

The more primal elements of his game have been domesticated perhaps to a harmful degree; he admitted earlier this season that he wanted to contribute more in the goals department.

But the residue of years gone by remains, and in City’s moment of need McLean’s oft-forgotten technical ability came to the fore. Yes, Gabriel Sara did the lion’s share of the work for his sublime late winner, but none of it comes without a pacey, accurate and well-seen pass from the Scot.

Shane Duffy even singled it out for praise when asked about Sara post-match.

Eastern Daily Press: Shane Duffy singled McLean's assist out for praise post-matchShane Duffy singled McLean's assist out for praise post-match (Image: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd)

It’s no surprise that the temporary Norwich skipper did all the gritty work. Tackles, headers and rapid recoveries are part of his staple diet. He clashed with various members of Preston’s physical midfield any number of times and, as fans will have enjoyed plenty, got the better of one such tussle with former Canary Robbie Brady.

Even in the absence of a true defensive midfielder, McLean and midfield partner Marcelino Nunez have combined to get through more than enough defensive work in the centre of the park.

The former’s enjoyment of a truly defensive role when dropped into the back four earlier this season tells you he’s happy to do all of that, both in view of his won skillset and an unmatched desire to put the collective first.

Giving him time to find the attacking contributions that used to define his game remains unwise, however, as the Lilywhites learned to their peril as their play-off hopes evaporated into thin air.

Verdict: Yet another solid performance from one of the first names on the Norwich team sheet and a very worthy captain in Grant Hanley’s absence. Not known for his offensive contributions in the here and now, but displayed with an incisive assist that he isn’t quite done with those yet.

Rating: 8 out of 10