Paul Huntington proved unlikely hero as North End picked up a magnificent 1-0 away win on a windy night at Gillingham.
The centre half, selected after an illness to Tom Clarke, powered home a header on the hour mark to give North End and the magnificent 216 away fans the three points.
North End’s plans were fluid on the night; already without skipper Tom Clarke through illness, manager Simon Grayson lost Scott Wiseman in the warm up, Scott Laird coming in at right back, alongside Paul Huntington, Clarke’s replacement.
Callum Robinson also came in for his first start, with Kyel Reid, unsurprisingly, dropping to the bench after his first league start in ten months at the weekend.
The first half was goalless, but not devoid of entertainment in the blustery conditions. Joe Garner, with the captain’s armband in the absence of Clarke, chose to have North End play into the strong winds in the first period.
It was Peter Taylor’s side who had the first chance of the game, however, as a Brennan Dickenson cross from the left was met by Danny Kedwell, forcing a great save at point blank range by Jamie Jones.
Two minutes later and the woodwork denied PNE an opener and it was Garner who headed against the bar from 12 yards out after Robinson’s cross from the left was only headed up in the air by Leon Legge.
On the quarter hour mark David Buchanan headed off the line from Gills skipper Danny Kedwell’s header from Jake Hessenthaler’s corner.
With 26 minutes on the clock North End played their way through and Callum Robinson saw a shot blocked by home side centre half John Egan, the follow up over the bar from Gallagher.
Just before the half hour mark Chris Humphrey was sent through by excellent pass from Gallagher, Stuart Nelson, a change in goal for the Kent side, came out and just denied the PNE wing man before he could get a touch that could have seen a goal or a foul and penalty.
The best chance of the half for the home side saw left winger Dickenson try a curling effort from 30 yards out down the left. It went over Jones, but came back off the cross bar and away to safety and North End counter.
The Lilywhites countered, in what was an end-to-end affair and Gallagher saw a driven cross from the right palmed away by Nelson.
The second half started with the same sort of tempo and a Gallagher free kick on 50 minutes was deflected out to Kilkenny whose shot saw two Gillingham men throw themselves in front of the ball to deny the Aussie midfielder the opener.
Ten minutes into the second half Garner met a Gallagher free kick and Nelson had to be on the top of his game to fingertip the ball out for a corner. From the corner the Gills somehow smothered the ball off the line as North End tried to bundle the ball home but just couldn’t force it over the line.
Just before the hour mark Callum Robinson met Buchanan’s cross and it came back off the post, but from the corner a brilliant cross from Humphrey just cried out ‘head me in’ and that’s what Paul Huntington did, rising at the back post to head back across Nelson and into the goal.
Less than four minutes later and it could and perhapos should have been two. A quick free kick, from Gallagher split the Gills defence wide open and Alan Browne was through on goal. He had Garner running to his left and chose to shoot, beating Nelson, but into the side-netting, leaving his captain livid at the decision not to square it.
North End again had a great chance to make it two when Paul Gallagher beat the offside trap to latch onto a Jack King ball in behind, but he was facing the wrong way and couldn’t swivel and shoot at a good enough angle, the ball coming back off Nelson, who smothered gleefully.
It was Jamie Jones who was required next, making a fine save with 14 minutes left to deny Kedwell after he had collected Hessentahler’s free kick into the box from the left.
With three minutes left North End hit the woodwork for the fourth time on the time. This time substitute Kevin Davies did brilliantly as he pulled the ball back to Gallagher, who drove a shot past Nelson, but it smashed back off the corner of post and bar and away to safety.
Four minutes of added time was signalled by the officials., but North End’s game management was superb as they saw out the time for another clean sheet and another win!
Gillingham line-up: Nelson, Martin, Egan, Legge, Hessenthaler, Kedwell (c) (Norris, 77), McDonald, McGlashan (German, 77), Pritchard (Dack, 71), Dickenson, Hoyte. Subs not used: Bywater, Fish, Hare, Staunton.
PNE Line-up: Jones, Laird, Buchanan, Kilkenny, King, Huntington, Humphrey (Reid, 73), Browne, Garner (c), Gallagher, Robinson (K Davies, 85). Subs not used: Stuckmann, Holmes, Welsh, Brownhill, Ryan.
Attendance: 4,623 (216 away fans)
Referee: Mr J Linington