Not many teams will take four points off promotion-chasers Brighton this season, the three collected by PNE in this clash at Deepdale totally deserved.
Having snatched a late draw in the reverse fixture on the south coast three months ago, the Lilywhites upset the odds once more to inflict a rare defeat on Albion.
Chris Hughton’s men came to town as Championship leaders and unbeaten in 18 games since September. They left on Saturday night having been knocked off the summit, Preston once again showing that reputations count for nothing.
Back in October, the draw at Brighton was in among some good results against clubs with big names and in lofty positions.
While more recently they did not handle Leeds well, PNE were seconds away from beating Sheffield Wednesday and minutes from a draw with Arsenal. In those last two home games, what was missing was a second goal to give them the cushion they tend to need.
On Saturday, North End got the second, Callum Robinson finding the net to add to Paul Huntington’s opener.
Victory moved them two places up the division to ninth.
There is a six-point gap still to make-up on the final play-off slot but one which a strong run in the weeks to come would bridge. With 39 points safely in the bag, the attention is now on what sits above Preston and not below.
There were many aspects of this win to be encouraged by, with strong performances throughout the team.
Daryl Horgan shone on his first start in a North End shirt, supplying the through ball for Robinson’s goal.
Exciting on the wing and intelligent in his play when he came into central areas, the former Dundalk man got a standing ovation when his number went up as the clock hit 90 minutes. Infield from Horgan, Irish compatriot Alan Browne was excellent in the role vacated by the suspended Ben Pearson.
They were big boots to fill and Browne stepped into them impressively. A lesson in old-school defending was put in by skipper Tom Clarke and Huntington.
For me, it was a toss-up between those two for the man of the match award. Huntington got the nod – just – his goal probably swinging things in his favour.
His 13th-minute opener was the first time he had been on the scoresheet since the play-off final.
While a search for extra quality up front goes on, the goals continue to come from different areas of the pitch. Huntington became the 14th player to score for PNE this season and they are the eighth joint-highest scorers in the division. Their outlook has become considerably more attack-minded. It was a 4-4-2 again for the first half against Brighton, as it had been for the Arsenal and Wednesday games.
After the break the system switched to 4-2-3-1, a tweak seeing Aiden McGeady move behind Jordan Hugill with Robinson going out to the wing.
Such a switch was done without the need for substitutions, the changes from the bench only needed late in the game for fresh legs and to run the clock down.
There were two anxious moments in that closing spell as Brighton launched one last salvage operation.
Marnick Vermijl kicked one off the line in the 84th minute, then Chris Maxwell saved a penalty deep into time added on.
Maxwell’s save preserved the clean sheet but was cosmetic in the fact it was the last piece of action of the contest.
Of greater significance was Vermijl’s goalline clearance. Had the Belgian not been on duty to stop a Shane Duffy header, it would have been a nervous last minutes for the Deepdale faithful.
On the subject of those in the stands, there was a drop of 10,794 from the crowd which had seen Arsenal pushed all the way by PNE.
The difference in numbers was always going to be big, but maybe not as significant as this. North End’s performance against Arsenal was deserving of more coming back and you can put the Brighton display into the same category.
A deflected Robinson shot had already worried Albion’s defence by the time the home side took the lead.
Paul Gallagher’s free-kick from the right-hand channel found HUNTINGTON, his header at the front post bouncing into the net and seeing a welcome return to the out-stretched arms celebration which was once quite commonplace. In the league this season, Preston have yet to lose a game they opened the scoring in. Just as key was the second goal in the 53rd minute.
Horgan was the creator, getting possession in his own half before lifting a ball over the top for Robinson to chase. He got in front of Brighton skipper Bruno and resisted the Spaniard’s efforts to pull him down. Moving into the box with Bruno still on his shoulder for company,
ROBINSON steered a low left-foot shot past the static David Stockdale. Greg Cunningham got his 10th yellow card of the season for a challenge on Anthony Knockaert – the Frenchman’s reaction which saw him square up to Cunningham somehow only dealt with by referee Simon Hooper by way of a telling-off.
Clarke produced one of the clearances of the season inside the six-yard box, sliding at full-stretch to hook away a cross from Knockaert.
Then Vermijl cleared off the line from Duffy’s header. Brighton got a chance for a consolation six minutes into stoppage-time after Maxwell clipped sub Jamie Murphy as they challenged for the ball on the floor.
Had Tomer Hemed scored from the spot, being so late in the day it would have been no more than a consolation. Maxwell guessed right and dived right to parry Hemed’s penalty and dealt too with a follow-up shot from Murphy. The save, the keeper’s third from the spot this term, put another coat of gloss on a day which could not have gone much better.
Chris Maxwell 7
Made the late penalty save – his third of the season – redeeming himself for giving away the spot kick. Not overly troubled in the game.
Marnick Vermijl 7
Made a vital goal-line clearance late in the game as Brighton mounted the pressure. Saw of Skalak’s threat well.
Tom Clarke 8
Excellent display from the skipper at the back, his sliding clearance inside the six-yard box facing his own goal was a big moment.
Paul Huntington 8
The centre-half scored the first goal to set PNE on their way and his display at the back was superb no-nonsense stuff.
Greg Cunningham 8
Coped well with Knockaert and was unlucky to be booked for a second-half challenge. A very strong display.
Daryl Horgan 8
Impressive full Preston debut for the Irish winger. Grew into the game and set up the second goal with a great ball over the top.
Paul Gallagher 8
Used his experience well in the centre of midfield, got in among the tackles and took one shot full in the face.
Alan Browne 8
Best display this season from the midfielder. Loads of energy and purpose, contributing at both ends of the pitch.
Aiden McGeady 7
Started on the wing before moving into the No.10 role in the second half. Had Brighton’s defence on the back foot quite often.
Callum Robinson 8
Showed both strength and calmness to score PNE’s second goal. Featured up front and then on the left wing.
Jordan Hugill 7
Had a good battle with Duffy in his job of leading the attack. Missed a first-half chance but his link-up play was good. Subs used:
Tom Barkhuizen 6
Made his North End debut as an 83rd-minute substitute for Robinson. Showed his pace with a late surge into the box.
Tommy Spurr 6
Joined the action when he replaced Horgan in the 90th minute as PNE ran the clock down.
Liam Grimshaw 6
Rare appearance for the midfielder, coming on for the last two minutes of stoppage time in place of McGeady.
Subs not used:
Simon Makienok, Ben Pringle, Stevie May, Anders Lindegaard. BRIGHTON: Stockdale, Bruno, Duffy, Goldson, Adekugbe, Knockaert, Norwood, Sidwell (Kayal 78), Skalak (Murphy 56), Baldock (Hemed 63), Murray. Subs (not used): March, Hunemeier, Hunt, Maenpaa.
REFEREE: Simon Hooper 6
ATTENDANCE: 11,391 (1,205 away)