As North End headed into the final month of 2017, Queens Park Rangers visited Deepdale in the opening fixture of December. It was the first of six games in the month, with three in just six days as we saw out the year with a busy festive schedule.
The clash with QPR may have been decided with a late winner but the matched swayed in North End's favour on 22 minutes as Rangers' Jamie Mackie was sent off for a challenge on Tom Clarke, who has returned to the starting Xl after eight months on the sidelines.
Ten-man QPR were stubborn and it took a stunning through ball from Paul Gallagher to unlock the London side’s defence. Gallagher picked up the ball just inside the QPR half and swept a defence splitting ball through to an onrushing Jordan Hugill who slotted the ball beyond the keeper.
The afternoon got worse for the Rs after the final whistle as former North End defender Alex Baptiste was given a red card to add to the visitors woes.
The win over QPR was followed up by a trip to Burton Albion for only the second time in our long history.
The last contest was settled by a Tom Clarke goal and that’s exactly how we got off the mark in this game. A corner to the far post was met by the skipper but his header was blocked before he tapped the ball in at the second attempt.
North End continued to create chances with two efforts hitting the woodwork, Robinson having a shot cleared off the line and Daryl Horgan going through one-on-one before the latter doubled the lead. Horgan arrived to support Tom Barkhuizen and bent an effort past the keeper into the far corner. Lucas Akins bundled an effort off the crossbar and in during added time but it was only a consolation for the hosts.
The Lilywhites' unbeaten run was building, now into its sixth game after Sheffield United were beaten at Deepdale. A team in form at the time, the Blades were in the Play-Off places and surprising the whole division with their successful first season back after promotion from League One – with forward Leon Clarke topping the goalscoring charts at the time.
Neither United or Clarke would find their afternoon in Lancashire a successful one though, as Jordan Hugill volleyed home a wonderful cross from the left by Callum Robinson. A deserved victory for the Lilywhites in a game full of PNE chances.
The festive fixtures were in full flow when Nottingham Forest visited Deepdale three days before Christmas Day. North End started the game brightly and were leading the attacks and the flowing football that was now becoming natural to the Lilywhites.
A change in official, after the match referee had picked up an injury, didn’t stem the tide but against the run of play, Forest took the lead just short of the hour mark. Ben Brereton found space and slotted the ball under Chris Maxwell after good build up play from Forest.
Many North Ender’s Christmas wishes were answered though, with a popular figure on the terraces Paul Huntington levelling the score. The defender had ventured forward for a corner and found himself on the ball at the edge of the box, his strike, on his weaker side, found the bottom corner in front of the Town End. It was Huntington’s only goal of the campaign and it was enough to win a point and extend the unbeaten run.
On Boxing Day, it was a trip to South Yorkshire to face Barnsley in another game where North End enjoyed the better of the chances. Jordan Hugill came closest in the game, his left footed strike from the centre of the box hitting the post and bouncing clear. The hosts did well to nullify the PNE attacks and the game ended in a 0-0 draw.
Another tight affair followed three days later, Cardiff City were third in the table and looking like they were putting in a very good challenge to earn automatic promotion.
PNE arrived at the Cardiff City Stadium and ended the calendar year in the best possible way. It was a close game between two evenly matched sides.
The game would be decided in the final minute of the game, skipper Tom Clarke with another vital goal to ensure North End would return to Preston with all three points. The Lilywhites got what they deserved for continuing their dogged determination throughout the game and once again displaying their never say die attitude.
After the 1-0 win against eventual runners-up Cardiff, North End had climbed five places over the course of the month. The Lilywhites had risen from 13th to 8th, just one point outside of the Play-Off places.
To reflect the move up the league table, PNE boss Alex Neil was nominated for Championship Manager of the Month after four wins and two draws in a demanding run of fixtures. By the turn of the New Year, PNE were also on a nine game unbeaten run and had well and truly put the defensive injury crisis behind them.