The Lilywhites extended their unbeaten away run to 11 games with a professional 2-0 victory over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light.
A fifth goal in four games since his return from injury from Irishman Sean Maguire and a second from Callum Robinson gave the side in green a valuable St Patrick’s Day three points to close the gap on the top six to just three points.
Maguire’s diving header from Paul Gallagher’s right wing free kick five minutes into the second half opened the scoring in driving snow and rain and after Chelsea loanee Jake Clarke-Salter had seen red for a second bookable offence, Robinson headed home from Tom Barkhuizen’s excellent cross to seal the win.
Manager Alex Neil had needed to make a late change to his side, with Chris Maxwell returning in goal; Declan Rudd missing to attend the birth of his second child, with Josh Earl and Paul Gallagher also back into the side in place of the injured Greg Cunningham and Daniel Johnson, who dropped to the bench.
And Maxwell was the first of the goalkeepers called into action in the 16th minute. Joel Asoro made a quick break forward and although Ben Davies got across to make a challenge, the ball ricocheted off the Black Cats’ forward and back into the forward’s path, but the North End stopper did well to save with his legs in a one-on-one.
Within a minute Lee Camp, also returning to the starting line-up, was required to make an even more impressive stop at the other end, when Robinson played a superb ball in behind the Sunderland back line and Barkhuizen broke the line only for the former Nottingham Forest keeper to come out and slide in to clear the ball at the No.29’s feet.
At the interval the North End boss switched his frontmen around, with Maguire moving out to the left and Robinson dropping into the No.9 role and paid dividends very quickly.
A free kick was won on the right hand side and Gallagher whipped a ball to the back post to where Maguire had timed his run perfectly and put in a diving header to divert the ball back across into the bottom right hand corner, giving Camp no chance – this was the No.24’s fifth goal in four games and his ninth of the season.
It was almost 2-0 90 seconds later when again Maguire went down the left side of the box, from Barkhuizen’s ball and the forward tried to square it back to his team-mate only for fellow Irishman John O’Shea to clear off the line - excellent defending from the former Manchester United man.
The football was now excellent from the greens as a brilliant from Alan Browne on the right went across the six yard box for Robinson, only for the ball to go straight through him.
On the hour mark the home side suffered a blow, when on loan defender Clarke-Salter picked up a second yellow card for a foul on Browne to send Black Cats down to ten men.
And this was compounded just three minutes later when Barkhuizen collected the ball on the right and delivered a superb cross and Robinson rose to make a header at the back post, again across Camp, to double the lead.
In the final half an hour the visitors really dominated and perhaps should have added more goals, however, Maxwell was needed once more with a quarter hour left, pushing substitute Kazenga LuaLua’s 25 yard left channel free kick around the post for a corner.
In the closing stages Camp made two brilliant saves from North End’s own substitute Daniel Johnson and Maguire as North End broke with the two and almost made it three – they were world class stops from the former Northern Ireland keeper, but it was to remain 2-0 as North End continued their pressure on the Play-Off places.
Sunderland line-up: Camp, Oviedo, Cattermole, O’Shea (c), Matthews, Kone, Maja (Fletcher, 64), Honeyman (LuaLua, 69), Asoro, Clarke-Salter, Ejaria (McNair, 76). Subs not used: Stryjek, McManaman, McGeady, Robson.
PNE line-up: Mawell, Fisher, Earl, Pearson, Huntington (c), Davies, Robinson (Harrop, 86), Gallagher (Johnson, 72), Maguire, Browne, Barkhuizen (Bodin, 86). Subs not used: Hudson, Clarke, Woods, Moult.
Attendance: 28,543 (2,277 PNE fans)
Referee: Mr D Bond