Preston North End produced a thrilling comeback to beat Lancashire rivals Blackburn Rovers at Deepdale.
The visitors started on the front foot and were 2-0 up after only 11 minutes, both goals from striker Sam Gallagher, but manager Alex Neil made a change after half an hour and his side came out transformed after half-time.
Tom Barkhuizen headed home from a clever head back from Sean Maguire after only eight minutes of the second period, before Daniel Johnson levelled matters from the penalty spot and with eight minutes left Barkhuizen, once again, won it with a stunning curling effort to lift the Lilywhites into the top two spots in the Championship.
The North End boss had been forced to make a late change to his plans, with Ben Davies ruled out after failing a late fitness test, with Andrew Hughes coming in at left-side centre half, but it was the East Lancashire side who came out the blocks fastest.
In fact, it was a blistering start from Tony Mowbray’s men as they went in front after just 32 seconds. A deep ball from the left was recycled by Adam Armstrong, who put over a cross from the right edge of the penalty area and Gallagher got up highest to head down and in off the foot of the left-hand upright.
PNE’s own Gallagher, former Rover, Paul, tested Christian Walton with a free kick from the left corner of the penalty area on ten minutes, following a foul on Sean Maguire and from the resulting corner, a Johnson cross from the right found an unmarked Patrick Bauer at the back post, but his header was straight at Rovers’ No.1.
But less than 60 seconds later, the score was 2-0 as Hughes’ clearance ricocheted kindly off Gallagher, into the former Southampton man’s path, and he curled a low shot, left-footed, into the bottom left-hand corner of the Alan Kelly Town End goal.
North End needed to change things and the manager decided a tactical switch was needed, Jayden Stockley brought on for North End’s Gallagher and the new man was a handful from the outset.
Moments after coming on he occupied Derrick Williams allowing a long ball to find Alan Browne, who turned the ball into the box for Barkhuizen, who got an effort in on goal, only for Manchester City loanee Tosin Adarabioyo to clear from under the cross bar.
Whatever was said in the PNE dressing room at half-time, however, had a huge effect, as the team returned with an intensity that soon took the game by the scruff of the neck.
Things were very different to the first 45 minutes from the outset, Browne setting down an early marker with a volley that Walton turned around the post from Stockley’s flick on of Declan Rudd’s long ball.
But the comeback began in earnest on 53 minutes. The ball was worked well around the box and eventually came to Darnell Fisher on the right corner of the 18-yard area. He lofted a high deep ball to the back post that looked like it might go straight out, but Maguire rose highest to keep the ball in and head it back perfectly for Barkhuizen on the edge of the six-yard box, who headed into the back of the net – making it goals in the last three home games for the attacker.
The home crowd were now in the game as well, with the atmosphere crackling inside Deepdale and chances were coming on a regular basis. Maguire almost got in and goalside of Adarabioyo on three minuets after the goal, but a good recovery and last-ditch tackle by the centre half put the ball out for a corner.
And then Stockley again caused problems, making an initial flick on, before getting the ball back from a Barkhuizen lay-off, only to see his hard low effort from the edge of the penalty area saved by Walton.
However, with 25 minutes left the Lilywhites drew level. Alan Browne burst into the box and Elliott Bennett cynically brought the Irishman down from behind, giving referee Steve Martin no other option than to point to the spot.
The calmest man in the stadium at this point was Daniel Johnson, who had to wait almost two minutes between the awarding of the spot kick and the whistle going to take it, but when he got the chance he coolly and calmly stroked the ball into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal, sending Walton the wrong way and the ground was bouncing once more.
There were strong shouts for a second penalty when a combination of Ryan Nyambe and Adarabioyo seemed to clearly smash Stockley to the floor after a ball in from Fisher on the right, but this time nothing was awarded.
But the winner arrived with eight minutes left and it was a superb strike when it came. The ball was worked in from the right-hand side, with Alan Browne receiving it just outside the ‘D’ in a central area. He fed it into Barkhuizen in the left-hand corner of the box and he opened up his body and curled an effort into the top right-hand corner – right in the stanchion – and wheeled away in celebration as the noise levels reached fever pitch.
The game management was excellent in the closing stages, with the bookings for Gallagher and Bradley Dack for very strong fouls on Rudd and Ben Pearson respectively, the frustrations of the visitors coming out, but it was the home side who went closest to a sixth goal of the game, Fisher’s 30 yard dipping free kick tipped over the bar by Walton with two minutes of normal time left.
The game though, remained 3-2 with Alex Neil’s men moving up into the automatic promotion spots in the Championship for the first time since December 2006 and the bumper crowd went home happy, with plenty of incentive to return for the next home game in a fortnight’s time.
PNE line-up: Rudd, Fisher, Rafferty, Pearson, Bauer, Hughes, Browne, Gallagher (c) (Stockley, 29), Barkhuizen, Johnson, Maguire (Potts, 90). Subs not used: Hudson, Storey, Ledson, Bodin, Nugent.
Blackburn Rovers line-up: Walton, Nyambe, Williams, Armstrong, Rothwell (Graham, 84), S Gallagher, Bell, Dack, Adarabioyo, Evans, Bennett (c). Subs not used: Leutwiler, B Johnson, Downing, Travis, Rankin-Costello, Buckley.
Attendance: 19,165 (4,592 Blackburn Rovers fans)
Referee: Mr S Martin