PNE 0 Walsall 2
Two late goals from Walsall gave them the advantage after the Lilywhites had created plenty of opportunities, particularly in the first half, to give themselves the advantage.
An Anthony Forde free kick and a Tom Bradshaw goal, both in the final five minutes, gave the visitors a 2-0 win, preventing North End scoring at home for the first time in 22 games in the process.
Manager Simon Grayson went with a very strong side, making seven changes from the FA Cup victory over Norwich City, with Jermaine Beckford partnering Kevin Davies in attack.
And it was the Lilywhites who dominated the opening half – the first 30 minutes in particular were a case of North End versus the Saddlers keeper Richard O’Donnell – the statistics showing 80 per cent possession for the home side.
The first of what were two outstanding saves from the Walsall No.1 came after nine minutes, as he flung out a boot to deny Beckford from five yards out from Paul Gallagher’s left wing cross – an amazing point blank stop.
North End pressed constantly in the opening stages and Chris Humphrey drove in from the right and fired left footed just over the bar from 25 yards out in a right hand channel shortly after the first chance.
And before the quarter hour mark Scott Wiseman’s quick throw was flicked on by Kevin Davies into Beckford, who spun and shot just over the left corner of the bar.
Jamaican winger Humphrey was in excellent form and he flew past Taylor on 18 minutes and drove along the touchline, threading the ball through the six yard box, but James O’Connor cleared from off the feet of Jermaine Beckford.
Just before the 30 minute mark O’Donnell was at it again to provide a one man wall against Beckford the PNE loan No.10’s header from anther perfect Gallagher cross stopped by more brilliant stuff from the keeper at full stretch, clawing the ball out of the top left corner.
This was followed as by another chance as again O’Donnell stopped PNE, this time preventing Scott Laird grabbing the first goal – his right foot shot from the edge of the box deflected almost up and over the keeper, only for him to scramble and grab it.
Despite all the chances the visitors almost grabbed a goal that would have been completely against the run of play. It was on the 35 minute mark as full back Andy Taylor hit the post with a curling free kick from 28 yards out after Paul Huntington was adjudged to have brought down Saddlers top scorer Tom Bradshaw.
The wind and rain drive into Deepdale after the break and it was the visitors who came out firing on all cylinders, Forde driving a cross right through the six yard box and then Michael Cain firing over from the edge of the ‘D’.
That sparked North End to life again and Beckford got a foot onto a whipped Gallagher cross, but could only direct it at the man who was proving his nemesis – O’Donnell.
Kyel Reid was introduced for Kevin Davies with 27 minutes left, with Paul Gallagher moving into the ‘No.10’ role behind Jermaine Beckford with the No.17 substitute out on the left.
A Paul Gallagher free kick from the left edge of the box was whipped in, but it landed on the roof of the net rather than six inches lower and into the top corner – this coming after James O’Connor had been booked for bringing down Scott Laird.
Jack King and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake came on with 15 minutes to go, the pair partnering each other up front for the Lilywhites with Gallagher moving now out to the right.
The game entered its last ten minutes with its first quiet stage, the second half much more even than the first, but it was the visitors who broke the deadlock.
A short clearance by Thorsten Stuckmann forced Neil Kilkenny to bring down Romaine Sawyers 25 yards out and Anthony Forde stepped up and curled it right footed into the bottom left hand corner, with North End’s No.1 sent the wrong way.
And then to make matters worse it was two. Tom Bradshaw took advantage of a short back past and raced down the left and slotted the ball under Thorsten Stuckmann to leave the visitors in a strong position.
PNE line-up: Stuckmann, Wiseman, Laird, Kilkenny, Clarke (c), Huntington, Humphrey (Ebanks-Blake, 74), Browne, K Davies (Reid, 63), Beckford (King, 74), Gallagher. Subs not used: Jones, Wright.
Walsall line-up: O’Donnell, Taylor, O’Connor, Downing, A Chambers (c), Bradshaw (Grimes, 90), Swayers, Cain, J Chambers, Cook (Baxendale, 78), Forde. Subs not used: MacGillivray, Purkiss, Flanagan, Grimes.
Attendance: 8,561 (833 away fans)
Referee: Mr S Hooper