A superb display from the Lilywhites gave them a place in the fifth round of the FA Cup as they came from behind to beat Sheffield United 3-1 at Bramall Lane.
Three goals in ten minutes from Paul Gallagher – a free kick and a penalty – and yet another headed goal from Paul Huntington were enough after Jamie Murphy had given the home side a first half lead.
Murphy gave the Blades the lead completely against the lead after an excellent first half by PNE, who had forced Mark Howard into three world class saves and hit the post. However, the home side’s No.9 fired into the bottom corner with their first shot on target on 37 minutes.
But North End continued where they left off after half-time on the front foot and got back into the game when Gallagher fired home a free kick from 20 yards before Huntington put them in front with a near post header and then Gallagher completed the ten minute treble with a penalty after Chris Humphrey had been upended.
North End had six changes to their line-up with a very positive formation that saw them pass the ball and move forward at will in the opening exchanges.
The first chance was perhaps the best of the lot, Kevin Davies capitalising on a mistake by Chris Basham to race through and superbly lob Howard in the goal, but the mango ball came off the inside of the left hand post, ran along the line and somehow stayed out!
On the quarter hour mark Paul Gallagher picked up a brilliant Neil Kilkenny threaded ball, travelled 20 yards and drove a swirling ball that Howard again did well to claim.
United’s first chance came just before the half hour mark as Mark McNulty collected a Stefan Scougall lay off and fired the Blades’ first shot of the game just wide of left hand upright off Callum Woods.
But this only inspired the yellow-clad Lilywhites as Chris Humphrey drove in onto his left foot and drilled a shot goalwards off McEveley and out for a corner.
From that corner Gallagher delivered from the right which was flicked on by Davies and skipper Tom Clarke at the back post headed down with power, only to see it brilliantly saved by Howard at full stretch and out for another corner.
On 32 minutes yet another good Gallagher cross this time found the wandering Scott Laird, playing extremely well in a free role, he met the ball at the back post and sent a looping header destined for the top corner until Howard tipped it over for PNE’s sixth corner.
But Simon Grayson’s side were hit by a sucker punch seven minutes before the break as Jamie Murphy cut in from left corner of the box and fired low into bottom right hand corner with Sheffield United’s first shot on target. It had been all PNE to that point.
North End were aggrieved that a handball hadn’t been awarded in the build up to the goal, but the opener brought the home side more into the game and right on half-time a brilliant strong hand from Stuckmann denied Jose Baxter, whose shot from 20 yards was heading towards the same bottom right hand corner that the goal had ended up.
North End started the second period on the front foot again and a Gallagher free kick from the left was again met by Tom Clarke, but once again Mark Howard was in the right place to make a smart save – the keeper had been the Lilywhites’ nemesis with an excellent display to that point.
And the pattern continued with a brilliant double stop on the mark, firstly to deny Scott Laird with a brilliant fingertip stop low to his left and then from Chris Humphrey running in to try and drive home the follow up after the ball remained in play.
The attacks continued and Chris Humphrey latched onto another Davies flick on and looked to be in on goal until Bob Harris brought him down 19 yards out.
The ball was almost in the same spot as where Josh Brownhill scored from in the league three weeks earlier and he again lined it up, but it was Paul Gallagher who hit it with pace and power curling it around the wall and into the top right hand corner – a superb strike with 63 minutes on the clock – no more than the yellows and their 1,000-plus following army deserved for what had been a positive, front foot display from their team.
And almost as soon as they were level were they ahead! A mistake by McEveley conceded a corner in front of the PNE fans and Scott Laird whipped over a brilliant front post corner and Paul Huntington was again there to flash home the header at the near post for his seventh of the season.
And with 17 minutes left North End were awarded a penalty. Humphrey again collected a loose ball and as he got through into the box Jay McEveley stretched out a leg and sent the No.7 sprawling.
Paul Gallagher stepped up with the usual reverse penalty and drove hard and low into the bottom left hand corner, for the third goal in ten minutes for the yellows, deservedly turning the game completely on its head.
Kevin Davies was outstanding on the night and with ten minutes left a deft touch from the front man set up Gallagher for what could have been a hat-trick for the former Blade loan man, but he dragged a left foot shot wide of the right hand post.
Joe Garner returned to action with two minutes left with the North End fans jubilant in the Jessica Ennis Stand upper tier not only to see their talisman back, but also at the level of performance from their team.
Four minutes were added on by Premier League referee Lee Probert and in the third minute Stuckmann was needed to come out and make a superb one-on-one save from Jamie Murphy to keep the two-goal cushion and the Lilywhites held on for a place in the fifth round.
Sheffield United line-up: Howard, Flynn, Harris, Doyle (c) (De Girolamo, 80), Basham, McEveley, Scougall (Reed, 64), Baxter, McNulty, Murphy, Campbell-Ryce. Subs not used: Turner, Alcock, B Davies, Kennedy, Cuvelier.
PNE line-up: Stuckmann, Wiseman, Woods, Kilkenny, Clarke (c), Huntington, Humphrey (Reid, 83), Brownhill, K Davies (Garner, 88), Gallagher, Laird (Welsh, 88). Subs not used: Hudson, Wright, Browne, Ebanks-Blake.
Attendance: 13,161 (1,112 away fans)
Referee: Mr L Probert