A game which was a little short on quality but far from lacking in excitement pitted two very different styles in combat and produced a breathless finish which tightened Town’s grasp on a play off place.
The result banished the woes of recent defeats without entirely dispelling the feeling that the squad is creaking with the rigours of a remarkable season, though the mental strength needed to overcome a robust Preston side who, undeservedly, had drawn level late on with a rare chance was both admirable and encouraging.
Like Burton before them, but with more guile and a sprinkling of quality, the Lilywhites presented a physical challenge which straddled the line between professionalism and cynicism uneasily. The approach is legitimate from a club, like Town, trying to find a way to counter the spending power of bigger rivals and their own play off ambitions have only now been extinguished with 2 visits to West Yorkshire in a week.
A far from perfect refereeing performance by the strutting Lee Probert, clearly more used to being on television on the biggest English stages, just about kept the visitors’ less savoury traits under some discipline, though the leniency he extended to one or two of their players – Pearson, in particular – meant his control over proceedings was never entirely authoritative.
Dominating the first quarter of an hour, Town’s early superiority failed to produce clear cut chances but served to shake off the cobwebs from last week’s lacklustre display at Forest.
Old boy Tom Clarke went off injured to a good reception from home fans who remember him with affection, but his team were ahead soon afterwards with a rare attack ending with an excellent strike from McGeady – Preston’s stand out player on the day. Though allowed too much time and space, the Everton loanee’s shot flew past Ward, curling well beyond his reach.
The goal, massively against the run of play however well executed, threatened to expose Town’s fragility given recent results but, to their credit, the home team simply carried on as before and, in the face of increasingly robust defending, continued to probe with intelligent possession.
Ten minutes from half time, Billing was lost to injury. His height had been useful against a team whose main threat came from the air and he had played his part in starving the visitors of the ball, but there was a sense of blessing in disguise when Mooy was reunited with Hogg to revive a partnership which has been a massively important foundation of the success achieved to date. That he was replaced by the diminutive Payne slightly tempered that – a physical battle isn’t necessarily the perfect environment for the Essex lad.
The equaliser, when it came, was laced with irony.
Having been destroyed in the air at Deepdale, the thought that a corner would produce a goal seemed ludicrous and, indeed, 3 previous ones had delivered no threat whatsoever. With the half time break looming, Mooy curled a deep cross over from the set piece which Preston’s keeper misjudged completely to allow Kachunga to head home a deserved equaliser.
Going in level was important and the least Town deserved against a rugged opposition largely lacking finesse or imagination. Rather than a deficit playing on dressing room minds, they could start again and make the revised system caused by Billing’s injury work.
If anything, Preston’s offending increased in the second half and Probert’s indulgence rose proportionately – it appeared that tugging back Wells and Van La Parra was fair game most of the time and, like Burton before them, the Lancastrians were allowed to interrupt the flow of the game far too readily.
Despite more dominance, Town were unable to fashion clear cut chances as well organised Preston’s defensive block thwarted any promising play but with overwhelming possession, the home side continued to probe.
Lowe fouled an opponent near the dugouts resulting in a minor fracas which finally got Pearson booked – despite rash challenges, the nearest he had come was a captain attended ticking off, a courtesy not extended for Lowe’s first transgression.
2 further Preston bookings followed as the visitors began to show signs of fading and all of the play – other than a breakaway following an ill executed corner routine which was brilliantly foiled by Hogg – flowed Town’s way.
On 70 minutes, Town took a deserved lead when Wells – who worked hard in the face of some rough treatment – floated a great ball over to Smith, marauding with menace for once in a below par outing, and a first time ball deflected off a defender, looping up invitingly for Payne to head home (more irony).
Looking to play out the game in comfort, Town maintained their dominance without looking like adding to the score but were hit by an almighty, and demoralising, sucker punch with 10 minutes to go.
Several opportunities to intervene and break up a rare Preston foray were missed before the ball found its way to Barkhuizen to cross for Hugill to head home powerfully from short range.
With two attempts, Preston had scored twice – a very good strike and capitalising on some loose defensive work – and just 3 minutes later, Hugill could have completed the turnaround but put his header from a similar range as the equaliser over the bar.
A winner for Preston would have been a terrible blow in the context of a tricky run in; sowing doubt and despair in to an already flat run and jeopardising the play off place Town undoubtedly deserve.
A point would, at least, create some form of momentum but, in this extraordinarily unpredictable division, late drama was to provide the Terriers with all 3.
With the visitors hanging on for a draw, Town made most of the running in the final stages but looked unlikely to convert possession in to goals. Quaner replaced Wells just before the board was put up to indicate 4 minutes added time, and midway through the extension, a Payne won free kick fizzled out and play retreated towards the half way line.
In the aftermath, however, Hugill – brought back to defend the free kick, clashed with Kachunga leaving Town’s top scorer in a heap in the area. To Probert’s credit, he kept an eye on events while play went upfield and called the game to a halt.
Most of the crowd didn’t see Hugill’s push and stamp, only the frenzied appealing of Hefele over the prostrate Kachunga. Taking his time and assessing the evidence in front of him, Probert booked Hugill and this could only mean one thing which was confirmed as he pointed to the spot.
Had the boot been on the other foot, our protests would have matched those of Grayson, his players and the visiting fans, but, as beneficiaries of the decision (which would have been easier to ignore in fairness to the referee), the fact that the ball was well away from the area does not preclude punishing an assault in it and can be vigorously defended.
Getting the penalty and converting it are not the same thing however. Town’s problem with both gaining and scoring them has dogged us for several years, and the curse seemed to strike again as Mooy’s decent attempt was well saved. However, Quaner was on hand to slot home a not altogether straightforward chance on the rebound and a massive win was achieved.
Town deserved the points for their application in the face of a very aggressive, difficult opponent who continue to be a force in this unrelenting division. While never reaching the heights of early and mid season, and possibly benefitting a little fortuitously by the enforced reunion of Mooy and the excellent Hogg, they didn’t let their heads drop after the blow of the equaliser and an ecstatic crowd – who had also backed the team impressively in adversity – were treated to a joyous Quaner celebration.
The missing link of Brown/Palmer continues to blight Town’s transition play – despite his goal, Payne was nowhere near as influential as the two Chelsea loaners can be – and the return of one or both can’t come quick enough to get us over the line and confirmed for the post season lottery.
With results elsewhere, the magnitude of the win was confirmed – a collapse could still precipitate disaster but this looks increasingly unlikely and (whisper it) there remains a very slim chance of capitalising on any Newcastle implosion following their own last minute woes in the late game.
One more win needed.