The Lilywhites showed great character to come from a goal down at half-time to put three past Birmingham City at St Andrew’s and end Harry Redknapp’s time at the Blues boss.
Maxime Colin’s deflected goal had put the home side ahead ten minutes before half-time, but second half goals from Daniel Johnson, Jordan Hugill and Tom Barkhuizen gave Alex Neil’s side a deserved three points, as they moved up to fourth place in the Sky Bet Championship.
The Lilywhites boss had been forced to make a change to the side that had thrashed Cardiff City in midweek, ever-present right back Darnell Fisher missing out, with Calum Woods selected to make his first start since May 2016 after recovering from a cruciate knee injury.
Johnson also returned from injury, replacing John Welsh in centre of midfield, with Paul Gallagher ruled out from the 18 due to illness.
The visitors came out of the blocks quickly and almost forced an early opener. Josh Harrop, starting his goal away from home, broke with pace down the right hand side and drilled a cross in. One of the Blues’ three summer signings from Brentford, Harlee Dean, went to clear it, but sliced the ball towards the bottom right hand corner, forcing former Brighton & Hove Albion stopper David Stockdale into a fine save, pushing the ball around the post at full stretch.
Redknapp’s side created opportunities, however, and former Blackburn Rovers loanee Sam Gallagher perhaps should have done better midway through the half, heading wide at the back post from Liam Walsh’s cross – the midfielder having replaced another former Blackburn man, Jason Lowe in the third minute, due to a hamstring injury.
And they took the lead ten minutes before half-time. A long ball from skipper Michael Morrison was played into North End’s right back area where another former Bee Colin was in a very advanced position from his left back role. He controlled the ball well before cutting inside past the attentions of Sean Maguire and firing a shot that came off Paul Huntington, taking it away from goalkeeper Chris Maxwell – making his 50th appearance for North End - into the bottom right hand corner.
There was almost an immediate reaction with a big chance to go in level at the break created when PNE countered with Harrop robbing Walsh in the middle of the park before breaking over half way, threading the ball into Hugill, who took the ball well into his path, but dragged his right footed shot wide of the left hand post from 15 yards out.
However, whatever was said by the manager at half-time had a huge influence on the game, as a difference Preston North End emerged from the dressing room in the second period, pressing the home side back into their own half from the off.
There had already been two shots on goal, that Stockdale did well to get right behind, before the equaliser came. It was 11 minutes after the break and Barkhuizen won the ball on the right touchline, just over half way. He cut inside and as the ball slightly overran, Johnson collected in just to the right of the centre circle. He moved forward with pace before opening up his body and curling a beautiful shot into the bottom left hand corner from the edge of the ‘D’. The former Aston Villa man was already was already receiving plenty of vitriol from the St Andrew’s faithful and this only raised their angst; as he received a yellow card following his celebrations.
Within five minutes they were ahead and the 1,700-strong away following were out of their seats. Again Barkhuizen was heavily involved, harrying and harassing on the edge of the ‘D’ to eventually force the ball away from Colin, easing the ball to Harrop. The former Manchester United man threaded the ball to Hugill in the right hand corner of the penalty area and he got his head down and drilled an effort into the goal at Stockdale’s near post.
And it became three goals in 11 minutes with a superb goal mid-way through the second half. Johnson had the ball inside the centre circle and moved forward before playing a delightful ball into the box for Sean Maguire, who opened up the City defence and then pulled the ball back along the six yard box for Barkhuizen, who slid home into the empty net.
In the remainder of the game the Lilywhites closed it down extremely well. John Welsh, described by the manager as ‘the wall’ after his midweek display, came on for his 400th career appearance and prevented Birmingham creating any chances to further test Maxwell. In the closing stages Woods, who had completed 80 minutes on his return, and Johnson were also replaced, but it remained 3-1 for the team’s fourth win of the season and their first three points on the road since January’s opening away game of 2017 at Burton Albion.
Birmingham City line-up: Stockdale, Nsue, Colin, Dean, Ndoye (Jutkiewicz, 68), Gallagher (Vassell, 61), Maghoma, Boga, Lowe (Walsh, 3), Davis, Morrison (c). Subs not used: Kuszczak, Roberts, Gardner, Bramall.
PNE line-up: Maxwell, Woods (Vermijl, 80), Earl, Browne, Huntington (c), Davies, Barkhuizen, Johnson, Hugill, Harrop, Maguire. Subs not used: Hudson, Vermijl, Horgan, Spurr, Welsh, Mavididi, Robinson.
Attendance: 21,168 (1,700 PNE fans)
Referee: Mr K Stroud