A wonder-goal from Jayden Stockley was unfortunately not enough for the Lilywhites as Birmingham City grabbed a late win at Deepdale.
The North End striker scored a superb 30-yard volley to level matters, after the Blues had taken the lead inside 90 seconds through Riley McGree, but substitute Gary Gardner scored against the run of play with five minutes to go to give Aitor Karanka’s side the win.
Both sides had made five changes before the game, with Darnell Fisher returning for PNE after injury and Josh Harrop, Tom Barkhuizen, Paul Gallagher and Stockley all earning starting slots.
But the home side faced an early set back as Jonathan Leko burst through the middle and found Lukas Jutkiewicz, who in turn played the ball across goal for Australian McGree to fire home from 12 yards out.
The visitors immediately sat back into their shape and invited North End to break them down and they were almost level immediately when Harrop found space on the left and lifted a left-footed cross into the area for Stockley to head down, but Neil Etheridge saved and gathered at the second attempt.
They were on parity though at the half’s mid-point as a brilliant a quick-thinking driven pass from Declan Rudd, in the direction of Barkhuizen, was headed up in the air by City skipper Harlee Dean and Stockley brought it down with his chest, before allowing it to bounce and hitting the lofted ball up and over Etheridge into the top left-hand corner of the goal at the Bill Shankly Kop end from 30 yards out.
There were great chances to go ahead either side of half-time. Firstly, on 33 minutes, the ball was played in from the left into Gallagher in the left corner of the penalty area. He looked up and saw Browne completely unmarked eight yards out in a central position, but the PNE captain was unaware of the time and space he had and looked to quickly backheel the pass past Etheridge, but could only find the ’keeper.
Then nine minutes into the second period, Browne again did superbly to win the ball off Ivan Sanchez on the half-way line and then drove towards the box before finding Gallagher on the edge of the ‘D’. He feinted to shoot, but played a clever ball in to the right side of the box for the run of Barkhuizen, who fired hard and low towards the bottom left-hand corner, only for the former Cardiff City stopper to make another fine stop.
But the attack wasn’t over and the ball was recycled out to Daniel Johnson 35 yards out, who pushed the ball out to Fisher on the right, who looked up and delivered a first time cross to the back post to where Browne again rose highest and powered a header in, but couldn’t keep it down and it flew just over the cross bar.
And the red-clad visitors scored what proved to be the winner with five minutes left on the clock as Mikel San Jose delivered a quick cross from the right and substitute Gardner, who had been on the pitch less than 60 seconds, headed home with his first touch past Rudd.
Back up the other end and it looked like PNE had earned what would have been a deserved point with two minutes to go when Barkhuizen, in a left-hand channel opened up his body and curled an effort towards the top right corner – similar to his 2019/20 goal against Blackburn, only another ten yards further out – but somehow Etheridge, at full-stretch, got up and tipped the ball over the bar for a corner and Birmingham held on for the win.
PNE line-up: Rudd, Fisher (Rafferty, 65), Hughes, Gallagher (Ledson, 62), Bauer, Storey, Barkhuizen, Johnson, Stockley (Riis, 76), Browne (c), Harrop. Subs not used: Ripley, Maguire, Sinclair, Potts.
Birmingham City line-up: Etheridge, Pedersen, Roberts, Jutkiewicz, Dean (c), Leko (Bela, 57), Sanchez, McGree (Gardner, 84), San Jose, Dacres-Cogley (Colin, 85), Sunjic. Subs not used: Prieto, Friend, Kieftenbeld, Hogan.
Referee: Mr T Harrington