North End came from a goal down to beat ten man Queens Park Rangers 2-1 on a wet afternoon at Deepdale.
The Lilywhites made it three straight home wins as another cracker from Aiden McGeady and Jordan Hugill’s 11th goal of the season saw them recover from Kazenga Lua Lua’s cheeky opener; with Luke Freeman seeing red for two yellow cards late on.
Simon Grayson had been forced to go with an unfamiliar 3-4-3 formation before kick-off losing Ben Pearson and Tyias Browning – who suffered a knee injury that will rule him out for six weeks – with Tommy Spurr and Daniel Johnson coming into the side.
And with the Hoops playing the same formation, the two sides cancelled each other out in the opening stages.
The home side finally started to look more comfortable in their set up, with Daryl Horgan operating at right wing back, as the game went on and they had the first real chance of the game when a quick free kick from Alan Browne sent McGeady away in a right hand channel. The Irishman, watched on my his national side’s No.2 Roy Keane, drove into the box, but an excellent recovery tackle from James Perch denied the No.14 as he was about to pull the trigger.
Two more Irishmen combined to go close to the opener just after the half hour mark when an outswinging corner from Horgan was met at the back post by Greg Cunningham, with a powerful header, but the ball was tipped away from top right hand corner by Alex Smithies in the R’s goal – the ’keeper who played under Grayson at Huddersfield making the first of many fine saves on the afternoon.
And against the run of play, with their first real effort of meaning the visitors went ahead. A long throw in from the right hand side went through two PNE defenders and Kazenga LuaLua with an incredible deft back heel from the edge of the six yard box caressed the ball into the bottom right hand corner, giving Chris Maxwell no chance on 36 minutes.
But Ian Holloway’s side were only in front for nine minutes. They had been given a warning in the last minute of the half when Callum Robinson ran in on goal onto a McGeady through ball, but his shot was weak and straight at Smithies.
However, moments later the shot-stopper was finally picking the ball out of the back of the net as McGeady, yet again, brought the Deepdale crowd to its feet with another 20 yard stunner. He picked up the ball on the left corner of the box, ghosted inside past three defenders before curling an exquisite ball into the bottom right hand corner from the edge of the ‘D’ with his right boot.
The half-time whistle brought an opportunity for the manager to change things and he reverted to a 4-4-2, moving Cunningham to right back and this freed up Horgan who immediately looked more at home in front of his fellow Irishman.
Shortly after the interval saw some great interplay as the transfer window acquisition from Dundlak collected the ball on the right, played it into Paul Huntington, who had stayed up from a previous attack and he showed some superb centre forward play to play to hold up the ball and lay it into the path of an on-rushing Cunningham from right back. The No.3 curled set himself and cured a shot wide of Smithies outstretched hand, but also just wide of the left hand post.
Smithies wasn’t needed to make save just after the hour mark, but did show his mental agility. Perch was injured on the goal line and North End passed their way through the Rangers defence, but the keeper stepped out to the edge of the six yard box which meant Robinson, who finished off the move by putting the ball in the net in from close range, was offside – astute play from QPR No.1.
However, he couldn’t prevent North End going in front for the first time in the afternoon, despite his best efforts. It came from one of many second half corners, with Horgan’s inswinger from the left finding Hugill. The big striker was denied initially by another fine save from the custodian, blocking a shot from the No.25, but he stayed alert to follow up and smashed in the second from close range for his 11th goal of the campaign.
The goal could and perhaps should have opened the floodgates as it was chance after chance for PNE after the second. Ninety seconds after the goal Hugill had a great chance to double his tally, Callum Robinson’s probing run and clever ball with the outside of his right boot from the left being met by his strike partner, but the shot was into the ground and up and over the bar.
Freeman was then dismissed after he stood on Tommy Spurr after a tackle, correctly receiving a second yellow card, despite the protestations of Holloway, who himself received a strong talking to from referee David Coote.
And don’t to ten men the Hoops’ defence was taken apart on a number of occasions by the pace and movement of the PNE front foot – Tom Barkhuizen coming on and leaving field unlucky not to have a hat-trick!
Smithies was in stunning form in the closing stages. Somehow he kept out an effort from Hugill whch came from a McGeady cross on the left and then substitute Barkhuizen was denied out by the ’keeper with another stunning save, the former Morecambe man driving in from the right and arrowing a shot from the right hand corner of the box that looked to be heading to the top left corner until the fingertips of the former Terrier denied him.
Into the final added minutes and McGeady had a chance again from the left after a superb pass from Barkhuizen, his drilled effort going across the six yard box and Robinson was denied a tap in at the back post by R’s skipper Nedum Onuoha.
And the three points were almost capped off in the third of four added minutes when yet again Barkhuizen collected McGeady’s pass and drove in from the right, but once again Smithies prevented the striker his first goal for PNE – he was one man on the visiting team who didn’t deserve to be on the losing side when the whistle came moments later.
But for North End it was the second time in three home games they had come from behind and moved three points closer to the last of the Play-Off positions.
PNE line-up: Maxwell, Cunningham, Spurr, Browne, Clarke (c), Huntington, Horgan (Barkhuizen, 86), Johnson, Robinson, Hugill, McGeady. Subs not used: Lindegaard, Makienok, Beckford, Gallagher, May, Boyle.
QPR line-up: Smithies, Freeman, Bidwell, Onuoha (c), Lynch, Wszolek, Smith (Sylla 67), Perch, LuaLua (Mackie, 73), Furlong (Ngbakoto, 68), Manning. Subs not used: Ingram, Goss, Luongo, Petrasso.
Attendance: 10,848 (658 QPR fans)
Referee: Mr D Coote