A controversial penalty from Lewis Grabban gave Nottingham Forest the points with their only shot on target at Deepdale in a 1-0 win for the Reds.
The award of the spot kick itself was already questionable – Darnell Fisher adjudged to have handballed when the ball was blasted at him on the floor from two yards - before the frontman kicked the ball twice in the action of taking it, which should have resulted in a free kick to PNE, only for official Tim Robinson and his dug out side assistant to miss the obvious error.
The goal came completely against the run of play as well, with Brice Samba twice keeping out the Lilywhites, with the woodwork also coming to the visiting side’s favour on more than one occasion.
Manager Alex Neil was forced to make changes for the first games of 2021, with captain Alan Browne out through injury and joined on the sidelines by Josh Harrop. Tom Bayliss came in for his first start in the league, with Ryan Ledson and Brad Potts also included after impressing from the bench in the win over Coventry the previous Tuesday evening.
The first half was a cagey affair, the best chances being a blocked Ledson shot and a low Johnson effort that saw the No.11 and skipper for the day stood on afterwards, leaving him with stud marks on the inside of his knee.
But after the break there was a verve about the Lilywhites, who attacked with vigour from the off. Eight minutes in Forest ’keeper Samba made a superb fingertip stop to deny Tom Barkhuizen, who powered an effort towards the top right corner from Johnson’s deflected right-wing cross, after the captain had been freed down the flank by Bayliss.
North End’s No.29 kept getting in good positions and three minutes later Potts this time found Johnson on the opposite side of the penalty area. This time his pull back eventually found the former Morecambe man, who checked inside and drove a left-footed curler that this time beat Brice, but
smashed against the cross bar.
It became a trio of chances for Barky on 65 minutes, when Hughes overlapped down the left-hand side and pulled the ball back for Johnson; his shot was blocked, as was one from Potts, the ball then falling kindly for forward, whose shot was this time over the bar, with his slightly leaning back as he got the effort away.
But at the half’s mid-point came the controversy. Forest made a rare foray into the penalty area and Grabban saw a shot blocked, it ricocheting into the path of Cafu, who drove the ball back in. Fisher was on the floor, putting his hand out to stop him hitting the ground with a thump, and the ball came off his arm and after a long delay and the shouts of the visiting players, the match official finally blew his whistle and pointed to the spot.
After a long delay Grabban stepped up, but as he took the penalty he slipped slightly, his left foot hitting the ball, before his right foot struck it, taking it down the middle of the goal, Declan Rudd diving to his right. Johnson and Rudd were both in prime position to see what had happened, but the referee waved away their protestations and awarded the goal.
The cross bar again denied North End with eight minutes left as Paul Gallagher – who had come on for Bayliss – whipped over a right-wing corner that Forest failed to clear and it fell to Ben Davies, who dropped a shoulder and smashed a left-foot shot from 12 yards, that cannoned against the bar and was eventually cleared.
There were five minutes of added time, but due to an injury play continued and in the 98th minute another substitute, Jayden Stockley, was fouled by Samba Sow and this gave Gallagher a chance to deliver a free kick from 24 yards, just to the left of centre.
He went around the wall, hard and low to the goalkeeper’s left, but he managed to get hands to push the ball away for a corner and give his side the points.
PNE line-up: Rudd, Fisher, Hughes, Ledson, Huntington, Davies, Potts (Riis, 77), Bayliss (Gallagher, 77), Maguire (Stockley, 87), Johnson (c), Barkhuizen. Subs not used: Ripley, Earl, Storey, Rafferty, Holland-Wilkinson, O’Reilly.
Nottingham Forest line-up: Samba, Christie, Figueiredo, Worrall, Ribeiro, Grabban (c) (Taylor, 90), Ameobi (Lolley, 63), Cafu (Arter, 88), Sow, Yates, Knockaert. Subs not used: Smith, Bong, Jenkinson, Mighten, Guerrero, McKenna.
Referee: Mr T Robinson