A first half scrambled goal from David McGoldrick gave Sheffield United the three points, despite the efforts of the Lilywhites.
Two controversial first half penalty incidents that left Alex Neil and his players livid, plus four good opportunities that were saved or blocked by the Blades were the difference between the sides as the visitors took one close range effort to take the win that put them back in the automatic promotion places.
The PNE boss was able to recall Alan Browne after injury, with Ben Pearson also fit to retain his place in the side, with Ryan Ledson starting alongside the aforementioned midfielders; Daniel Johnson and Paul Gallagher the ones to miss out, with Johnson missing altogether through injury.
It was a bright start from the home side, in glorious sunshine and in front of a boisterous crowd, including over 5,500 from across the Pennines. Browne was immediately into the action and it took a great block from George Baldock to deny the Irishman an opener after a positive overlapping run from Darnell Fisher down the right, pulling the ball back for the No.8 to fire in from 15 yards, only for the United wing back to get in a last-ditch blocking tackle.
One of the stand-out dangers in the opening half was Lukas Nmecha and he was tormenting Chris Widler’s stand-in left wing back Kieran Dowell in the first half. On five minutes he drove past three defenders and into the box before drilling the ball across the six-yard box, goalkeeper Dean Henderson flying out to block at the feet of Sean Maguire.
On 17 minutes another great chance came as Alan Browne nicked the ball midway inside the United half and found Callum Robinson in the box, he fired in a powerful first-time drive that Henderson pushed behind for a corner. From that resulting corner came the first – and probably the weakest of three penalty shouts – when Browne was pushed to the ground at the back post by Oliver Norwood, who was not watching the ball.
However, shortly after referee Gavin Ward missed what was a stonewall penalty as Josh Earl broke into the left-hand side of the box and was upended quite clearly by Chris Basham. The North End players were incensed, and rightly so, as play was waved on.
And as if the ire from that wasn’t enough just before the half hour mark Nmecha burst into the area and Henderson came out and cleared out the on loan Manchester City striker for what was another blatant spot kick, this time the referee was perhaps not in the best position, but the linesman on the Invincibles Pavilion side was in prime position and again failed to award the penalty.
The frustration was compounded on 33 minutes as the Blades took the lead. The ball was robbed in the middle of the pitch with a corner won, which John Fleck delivered into the box and despite an initial save by Declan Rudd, Irish international forward McGoldrick turned the ball home from inside the six-yard box.
The chances were still coming to PNE though and either side of half-time Robinson was denied. Three minutes before the interval Fleck managed to block the No.7’s shot from 18 yards after Maguire’s pull back and then 70 seconds into the second period Nmecha burst through at the heart of the Sheffield United backline and played the ball left to Robinson – starting his first game at Deepdale since November – but the shot was straight at Henderson.
The game was very open in the second half and it took a great save from Rudd eight minutes into the second half to deny Billy Sharp, who had collected a ricocheting ball and burst clean through one-on-one, only for PNE’s No.1 to come out on top.
Shortly after Nmecha almost brought the crowd off its feet, but his effort was into the side-netting after a header down by Ledson from Fisher’s ball into the box from the right-hand side.
Changes were made with Gallagher, Louis Moult and Jayden Stockley all thrown into the mix and all had an influence in the closing stages.
With 13 minutes left Maguire’s lofted ball into the danger areas was nodded down by Stockley and fell nicely for Gallagher in a position just to the left of the goal 15 yards out, but his curling effort beat Henderson, but also the bar.
There was a late chance to grab what would have been a deserved point from the game when Gallagher’s right-wing corner, in front of the Alan Kelly Town End, fell to the magnetic head of Stockley, but he was unable to direct the ball inside the left-hand post and the visitors held on for a win that took them above the next team to come to Deepdale, Leeds United, and into second spot in the EFL Championship table.
PNE line-up: Rudd, Fisher, Earl, Pearson, Storey, Davies, Nmecha (Stockley, 76), Ledson (Gallagher, 66), Robinson (Moult, 54), Browne (c), Maguire. Subs not used: Crowe, Rafferty, Ginnelly, Huntington.
Sheffield United line-up: Henderson, Baldock, Stevens, Fleck, Basham, Dowell (Cranie, 63), Sharp (c) (Hogan, 84), Egan, Norwood, McGoldrick, Duffy (Stearman, 78). Subs not used: Moore, Coutts, Freeman, Washington.
Attendance: 18,339 (5,577 Sheffield United fans)
Referee: Mr G Ward