Alex Neil’s Preston North End got their season off to a perfect start with a 1-0 home win over Sheffield Wednesday at Deepdale.
They picked up their first opening day win since 2008 thanks to Daniel Johnson’s coolly taken second half penalty, after Tom Lees had brought down marauding substitute Jordan Hugill with just 11 minutes to go.
It was no more than the Lilywhites deserved with an excellent performance, where Chris Maxwell was rarely troubled in the home goal.
The manager had chosen to give Sean Maguire and Darnell Fisher home debuts in a side that saw Paul Huntington partner Tommy Spurr at the centre of defence, whilst Declan Rudd, Stevie May, Paul Gallagher and Hugill were all fit to make the bench after missing part of pre-season through injury.
The game started at a frenetic pace, with the home side dominating possession without forcing Keiren Westwood to make too many saves, however, the Irish international stopper was left scrambling after a Callum Robinson free kick on the half hour mark. Johnson had been brought down 25 yards out and his fellow ex-Villain curled the ball up and over the wall, but a few inches wide of the left hand upright in front of a subdued sell out away end.
With five minutes to go until half-time Maguire was threaded in down the left hand edge of the box by Robinson. The Irish striker was on the outside of Lees, but beat the former Leeds man for pace before drilling a shot from a narrow angle, which the Owls’ No.1 palmed away for a corner.
After the break PNE were just as sharp and Robinson almost brought the stadium to its feet with a curling effort from 25 yards that beat the opposing custodian, but also beat the outside of the right hand post by a fraction of an inch.
Former North Ender Ross Wallace was brought on, in one of three changes made by the visitors in close succession, and he had their best chance, cutting in from the right hand side before drilling a left foot shot just over Maxwell’s bar.
Gallagher and Hugill were introduced into the action by the North End manager and both had an impact. The former’s first touch was to show his quality from dead ball situations, delivering a corner from the right hand side in front of the Town End onto Spurr’s head 12 yards out. The powerful effort came back off the cross bar and Wednesday were able to clear off the feet of Greg Cunningham, looking to pounce six yards out.
But two minutes later the chance was given to score the first goal of the season. Excellent control and power from Jordan Hugill saw him burst from 40 yards out into the box and Lees’ tackle from behind took the No.9’s legs from underneath him, referee Tony Harrington immediately pointing to the penalty spot.
Johnson stepped up and casually sent Westwood the wrong way, stroking his left-footed penalty low into the bottom right hand corner.
It looked like Hugill had doubled the lead with six minutes to go as he again broke through the attentions of Lees and Loovens, took the ball past Westwood and nodded home, but referee Harrington had seen something no one else had, awarding a free kick for an apparent handball.
Five minutes of added time created some nervous tension inside Deepdale, especially considering what had happened on New Year’s Eve the previous season, but the game management by North End was excellent as they took the points and the opening day Roses bragging rights.
PNE line-up: Maxwell, Fisher, Cunningham (c), Pearson, Huntington, Spurr, Barkhuizen, Browne (Hugill, 67), Maguire (Gallagher, 74), Johnson, Robinson. Subs not used: Rudd, Vermijl, Horgan, Davies, May.
Sheffield Wednesday line-up: Westwood, Hunt, Rhodes (Hooper, 57), Bannan, Loovens (c), Lees, Reach, Boyd (Wallace, 67), Hutchinson (Jones, 69), Pudil, Forestieri. Subs not used: Wildsmith, Fox, Fletcher, Nuhiu.
Attendance: 18,267 (5,489 Sheffield Wednesday fans)
Referee: Mr T Harrington