Scott Sinclair’s eighth goal of the season gave the Lilywhites a superb 1-0 win over Birmingham City at St Andrews in torrential conditions.
Manager Alex Neil made four changes from the trip to Bristol City, with Jayson Molumby getting his first league start and skipper Alan Browne playing at right back.
And the green-clad Lilywhites started brightly, coming out of the blocks quickly, Ryan Ledson sending Emil Riis – two of the four additions to the starting line-up – down the right hand side, with a clear tactic to try and use the Dane’s pace to get in behind; the U21 international winning an early corner on that occasion.
The game began amidst torrential rain, which lasted for the first half hour, making the judgement of passes difficult and many of them – from both sides – skipped on in those early stages, away from their intended targets.
North End’s captain went close to opening the scoring just after the first half’s mid-point. It was a superb and pacey counter from a Blues corner, as Brad Potts released Browne down the left, with a 60-yard lung-busting run, before checking in to the left corner of the penalty area and curling an effort that beat Neil Etheridge, but curled just past the right stanchion.
Daniel Iversen made an excellent stop to keep it goalless on the half hour mark. Ivan Sanchez cut in from the home side’s right and drilled a low shot from 15 yards, but a strong hand from the Leicester City loanee pushed it away to safety.
The rain rolled back in for the second half, after a let up for the last few minutes of the opening period.
And on 49 minutes the opener was an inch away. This time the run in behind was timed perfectly as Riis broke down the right and found an excellent pass inside for Potts who drilled a low shot that beat the keeper, but came back off the inside of the right-hand post.
And within seconds Potts again went close as from the resulting clearance, Sinclair picked up the ball on half way before driving at the Birmingham defence and finding the No.44 on the edge of the ‘D’, who danced right and drilled a low shot that Etheridge make a superb one-handed stop to tip around the post.
It was a blistering start to the second half, but didn’t bring with it the goal it deserved for PNE – another chance coming on 17 minutes as Potts found Sinclair’s run in behind, Etheridge coming out to superbly smother at the feet of the Lilywhites’ top scorer.
A double change on the hour mark from Aitor Karanka saw two forwards on for the home side, switching to what looked like a 4-4-2 for the remainder of the game, to try and stop the momentum the visitors had built up in the early stages of the second half.
But the goal finally came for North End seconds late. It started with Ben Whiteman, who fired the ball into Sinclair on half-way, who flicked the ball to release Molumby who drove 40 yards to the edge of the area, before sliding the ball back to Sinclair on his outside right and the No.31 drilled the ball back across goal into the bottom left corner for his eight goal of the season, seven coming on the road.
Another double swap from Karanka saw Gary Gardner and Alen Hililovic on for Jeremie Bela and Ivan Sanchez to try and turn the tide of the game with 17 minutes left.
Tom Barkhuizen replaced the North End goalscorer with just over ten minutes to go, adding a different level of threat with his pace up against George Friend down City’s left-hand side.
Somehow the officials found seven minutes of stoppage time, much to the astonishment of the North End bench, as the rain got even worse, monsoon conditions at St Andrews in the closing stages, but despite some late home pressure the full-time whistle brought first win of 2021 for the Lilywhites.
Birmingham City line-up: Etheridge, Colin, Friend, Kieftenbeld, Hogan (Jutkiewicz, 60), Bela (Gardner, 73), Dean (c), Sanchez (Halilovic, 73), San Jose, Toral (Leko, 60), Sunjic. Subs not used: Trueman, Pedersen, Roberts, Clayton, Dacres-Cogley.
PNE line-up: Iversen, Browne (c), Hughes, Whiteman, Huntington, Davies, Potts, Ledson, Riis, Molumby (Johnson, 86), Sinclair (Barkhuizen, 78). Subs not used: Ripley, Fisher, Earl, Bayliss, Gallagher, Rafferty, Evans.
Referee: Mr T Harrington