A controversial second half penalty given by an assistant referee cost the Lilywhites all three points at Villa Park.
Tom Barkhuizen opened the scoring eight minutes before the interval, an acrobatic effort with his back to goal after a corner from Callum Robinson was headed up in the air and North End’s No.29 turned the ball over his head, with Sam Johnstone only able to palm the ball into the roof of his net.
However, Barkhuizen was also very harshly adjudged to have fouled Josh Onomah in the penalty area and Lewis Grabban slid home the penalty to mean the game ended all-square.
Manager Alex Neil made three changes to the side that drew with league leaders Wolves the previous weekend, two of them enforced, with Ben Pearson back into midfield, Greg Cunningham replacing Josh Earl at left back – the Irishman’s 100th appearance for the Lilywhites - and Louis Moult given his first start in the league, Callum Robinson playing just behind him in the No.10 position.
The first half saw North End the dominant force, however, the home side still forced Declan Rudd into a number of saves.
As early as the eighth minute Birkir Bjarnason found space for a shot from 25 yards that PNE’s No.1 did well at full stretch to palm out from the top left corner. From the resulting corner a John Terry header from a Robert Snodgrass corner again forced Rudd to make a fine claim in the opposite corner.
But the chances started to turn the other way, the first coming the way of former Villan Robinson. Former England captain Terry gave the ball away in the middle of his own half and North End’s No.37 drove at the heart of Villa defence, before firing a shot from the edge of the ‘D’ beating former lilywhite loanee Johnstone, but flashing past the outside of the left hand upright.
Midway through the opening period a Terry header across the goal from another Snodgrass free kick was collected by Scott Hogan, who drove into the left hand corner of the six yard box and shot low forcing Rudd to make a smart save.
But the opening goal came on 37 minutes. Barkhuizen drove down the left flank and won a corner off Manchester United loanee Axel Tuanzebe. Robinson delivered an inswinger into the six yard box that Terry, under pressure from Paul Huntington, headed up in the air, the ball eventually coming out to 15 yards out and Barkhuizen hooked the ball over his shoulder and Johnstone got up a late hand, but could only palm the ball into the roof of the net, much to the delight of the vocal travelling army of nearly 1,000 North Enders. It was the forward’s seventh of the season.
On the stroke of half-time it was almost two. Again Barkhuizen collected the ball from Cunningham down the left; he then cut inside past two defenders and fired goalwards from the edge of the box, only for Johnstone to get down low to save.
A minute into the second half a corner from Robinson on the left came out to Ben Pearson, who blasted a shot into the box with a huge shout from the North End players for a penalty. Referee Darren England pointed for another corner, this time from Bodin, who found Huntington at the back post, who headed towards the top corner only for Johnstone to brilliantly get finger tips to it and push the ball away.
Ten minutes into the second half and Robinson found himself clean through and one on one with Johnstone after a through ball from Alan Browne, making his 150th PNE appearance. He composed himself, but his former team-mate stood up well and denied the striker a second goal for the Lilywhites.
The chances kept coming as Robinson, Barkhuizen and Pearson all had shots blocked in another pressing attack from the away side, Villa putting their bodies on the line defensively to prevent going two behind.
But on 65 minutes assistant referee Nick Greenhalgh made a huge match-changing decision.
A ball into the box from Onomah went across the penalty area and Tom Barkhuizen cleared the ball. The referee gave nothing, but his assistant somehow made a decision that a penalty should be awarded.
Eventually half-time substitute Grabban stepped up and slid the ball down the middle of the goal to level the game, but it was the decision to award the chance from 12 yards in the first place that would be the talking point.
Another controversial penalty moment came with 14 minutes to go. This time at the other end. Billy Bodin and Alan Browne burst through .The former was brought down by Terry – who was later booked for the incident – the foul right on the line of the 18 box. Instead of giving either a free kick or a penalty, referee England allowed play to continue, with Barkhuizen’s shot blocked and cleared.
Despite late pressure from the visitors, who made attacking changes, whilst Steve Bruce brought on a defender, no winning goal came and PNE had to take the point.
Aston Villa line-up: Johnstone, Chester, Snodgrass (Grabban, 46), Hogan, Hourihane (Davis, 46), Jedinak, Onomah, Bjarnason, Hutton, Terry (c), Tuanzebe (Elmohamady, 85). Subs not used: Bunn, Taylor, Whelan, Lansbury.
PNE line-up: Rudd, Fisher, Cunningham (c), Pearson, Huntington, Davies, Bodin (Harrop, 90), Browne, Robinson, Moult (Horgan, 83), Barkhuizen (Simpson, 90). Subs not used: Maxwell, Woods, Spurr, Earl.
Attendance: 30,134 (972 PNE fans)
Referee: Mr D England