A late goal from substitute Jayden Stockley gave Preston North End an early Christmas present as they moved back into third place in the Championship with a 2-1 win over Luton Town.
Paul Gallagher had given the Lilywhites a fifth minute lead, firing home the rebound after his initial penalty had been saved by James Shea in the Hatters goal.
But Graeme Jones’ side equalised just before half-time when Irish striker James Collins converted from the spot after referee Gavin Ward had been conned by a dive from Callum McManaman in the box.
But former Luton loanee Stockley was the calmest man in the penalty area with six minutes left, taking a touch and firing home from inside the penalty area after shots from Josh Harrop and Paul Gallagher had been blocked.
Manager Alex Neil was able to welcome back Darnell Fisher – who replaced the suspended Joe Rafferty – and Gallagher, after injury, the latter replacing Brad Potts in the midfield.
And the North End skipper gave the side the perfect start. His corner from the left, in front of the Alan Kelly Town End – after Town became the first visiting team to switch the side around before kick-off – saw Patrick Bauer hauled down at the back post and match official Ward pointed to the spot.
The No.12’s usual routine saw him fire hard down the middle, but Shea, going to his right, managed to stretch out a glove and block the shot, only for Gallagher to react quickest and this time fire hard and low into the bottom right hand corner to make it 1-0.
The visitors grew into the game, however, and had a good spell around the quarter hour mark. Firstly, Luke Berry fired wide after the ball bounced around the penalty area and then captain Sonny Bradley saw a shot blocked by Andrew Hughes for a corner from the right corner of the penalty area.
At the half’s mid-point, North End almost doubled their lead when Hughes crossed from the left and Billy Bodin headed back onto the line, where Nugent was ready to bounce for his second goal in a week, but Matty Pearson scrambled the ball off the goal line and behind for a corner.
For the fourth time in five games the home side were left livid with a penalty decision just before the break, though. Former Wigan man McManaman through himself down in front of Paul Huntington and Ward pointed to the spot, much to PNE and their fans’ disbelief, Collins stepping up to level with two minutes of the half left.
In the second period the manager made changes to try and get the three points, with Harrop, Tom Barkhuizen and then Stockley all thrown into the mix, but it was at the other end that the match was also won.
With ten minutes left Declan Rudd proved the hero; Hatters sub Harry Cornick found a way past Ben Pearson and went clean through, one-on-one, against the North End No.1, but the goalkeeper stayed big and eventually stretched out his left foot to make a brilliant save.
And whilst the reaction and thrum of the noise around the ground was still ringing around Deepdale, the points were won up the other end.
Fisher picked up the ball and delivered a cross from the right and Harrop and Gallagher both saw attempts to score blocked before the ball fell in the six yard box for Stockley, who was the calmest man inside the ground, taking a touch before picking his spot in the bottom left hand corner and sending the crowd wild.
It could have been a win by an even bigger margin in the final minutes as firstly Barkhuizen raced onto Stockley’s through ball and passed across for Harrop, only for the ball to be just out of his reach on the stretch and then in the sixth minute of stoppage time Stockley could have had a second when Barkhuizen shows his raw pace to race away down the right and cross for the No.20, but he couldn’t keep his sweetly connected half-volley under the bar.
Jones’ men were lucky not to end the game with ten men, with Sonny Bradley elbowing Darnell Fisher off the ball in the eighth minute of the six that had been signalled to be added on, but only a yellow card was produced on an afternoon of decisions that left questions to be asked.
However, this didn’t matter as the Lilywhites made it back-to-back home wins in the week, to climb back up to third in the table heading into the final game before Christmas – and the season’s mid-point – away at Cardiff City in a week’s time.
PNE line-up: Rudd, Fisher, Hughes, Pearson, Bauer, Huntington, Bodin (Stockley, 76), Gallagher (c), Nugent (Harrop, 56), Browne (Barkhuizen, 66), Maguire. Subs not used: Hudson, Clarke, Ledson, Potts.
Luton Town line-up: Shea, Bradley (c), M Pearson, McManaman (Cornick, 67), Berry (Moncur, 86), Mpanzu, Collins, Bolton, LuaLua, Bree, Butterfield (Tunnicliffe, 61). Subs not used: Sluga, Shinnie, Jones, Sheehan.
Attendance: 12,083 (865 Luton Town fans)
Referee: Mr G Ward