PNE 1 Walsall 0
In reality the Lilywhites should have been out of sight before the break as Saddlers stopper Richard O’Donnell pulled off some world class saves.
But Johnson’s low swept finish from Chris Humphrey’s ball in from the right on 19 miniutes was enough as Sam Johnstone kept another clean sheet, including a vital save in the fourth minute of stoppage time.
Manager Simon Grayson named an unchanged 18 from the side that defeated Scunthorpe the previous Saturday, however, there was a change in formation, moving to the 4-3-3 that had proved so successful in the second half against the Iron.
And North End started like a house on fire and could have been well ahead and out of sight before they finally did break the deadlock, had it not been for the brilliance of Richard O’Donnell.
The Saddlers keeper had been in superb form in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy tie a month earlier and he continued where he left off that night.
Firstly he denied Joe Garner just 80 seconds in, the 14-goal hitman powering goalwards a diving header from a Paul Gallagher ball to back post from the left.
Then shortly after he produced a brilliant reaction stop to deny a Gallagher effort from the left hand corner of the six yard box from Chris Humphrey’s cross. A brace of corners cause problems as PNE keep pressure on.
And from the third corner another great ball came in from Scott Laird and once again O’Donnell was at full stretch to palm Garner’s bullet header away to safety.
All this was inside the opening ten minutes, but there was no let up for Dean Smith’s side. Great pressure from the PNE front three saw Gallagher take the ball off the Walsall midfield and break, He slid in Garner, but the No.14 couldn’t get the ball out from under his feet and fired low, but straight back at O’Donnell again.
However, the deficit was finally broken on 19 minutes. Great play by Joe Garner saw him whip a quality ball out wide for Chris Humphrey to drive down the right. The Jamaican bulldozered Rico Henry and pulled the ball back to the penalty spot for an onrushing Daniel Johnson to fire low and hard under Richard O’Donnell into the net for his second in as many games.
The Lilywhites continued to press and Humphrey had a chance after a Laird run down the left and cross that saw a Joe Garner shot blocked; the ball came back out and wide to Humphrey who checked inside and fired a low shot that was again saved.
Ten minutes before the interval Callum Robinson headed wide from Gallagher’s cross after more excellent build up play, but it remained just one at the break.
The second half started in much the same fashion, a stunning effort from Paul Gallagher smashing back off the bar and Joe Garner heading the rebound just over the bar inside the first 40 seconds.
The woodwork was again there to help the visitors on 52 minutes as Tom Clarke rose highest to meet a Scott Laird driven corner at the back post, the ball crashing back off the left hand post with O’Donnell beaten.
The incident saw Tom Clarke injured and had to be replaced; Scott Wiseman replacing the PNE skipper, who left the field to a standing ovation.
Joe Garner flashed a header from a Gallagher corner just past the right hand upright just after the hour mark in a game that was still full of chances.
The visitors best spell of the game came after the hour mark as they held possession and pressed the Lilywhites for a long spell, without testing Sam Johnstone too much.
The officials decided six minutes would be added on, mostly due to the treatment received by Tom Clarke.
A brilliant goalline clearance from Sam Johnstone after a Walsall corner in the fourth of the six minutes kept things with North End having an advantage – a superb strong hand from the on loan stopper that ultimately gave North End their fourth straight league win.
PNE line-up: Johnstone, Clarke (Wiseman, 56), Laird, Welsh, Wright, Huntington, Humphrey, Johnson, Garner (K Davies, 90), Robinson (Kilkenny, 79), Gallagher. Subs not used: Stuckmann, Buchanan, Reid, Ebanks-Blake.
Walsall line-up: O’Donnell, Purkiss, O’Connor, A Chambers (c), Cain, J Chambers, Cook, Grimes (Sawyers, 61), Henry (Taylor, 23), Forde (Baxendale, 76), Hiwula. Subs not used: MacGillivray, Preston, Flanagan, Murphy.
Attendance: 7,779 (127 away fans)
Referee: Mr D Drysdale