Preston’s play-off push being put firmly back on track could be traced to events just before and during half-time of their clash with QPR.
Their chances of making the Championship’s top six look a lot more realistic today than they did at 3.44pm on Saturday afternoon.
A swing of Aiden McGeady’s right boot followed by a switch of formation at the interval were key to the outcome of this Deepdale clash and, who knows, the direction of the rest of the campaign?
Having fallen behind to a Kazenga Lualua goal during a below-par first half, North End’s chances of staying in touch with the sides above them were not looking good.
Another McGeady special brought them level moments before half-time, the quality of the goal out of sync with what had gone before it.
Next came a change back to 4-4-2 from the 3-4-3 system which Simon Grayson had used in a bid to cover an acute shortage of right-backs.
Even though that meant a left-footed Greg Cunningham playing out of position at right-back, the familiarity of 4-4-2 served the Lilywhites well.
If the Irishman was playing outside of his comfort zone, it did not show.
In fact, the shift across the pitch put him in position to go ever so close to scoring in the early stages of the second half.
As it was, Jordan Hugill was to pop up with PNE’s winner as the game swung their way in the closing 18 minutes.
The visitors went down to 10 men shortly after Hugill had struck from close range, Luke Freeman leaving his studs a moment too long on Tommy Spurr’s leg – earning him a second yellow and then a red card.
A man and a goal to the good, North End could have been bigger winners.
They swamped QPR in the closing stages, only for keeper Alex Smithies and the bar to stand in their way.
So the nine-point gap to the play-off places which Preston faced as they trailed during that first half is now down to a more manageable six.
It would still take a decent swing to make up the gap but suddenly the Gentry Day visit to Fulham has taken on a bigger significance.
Only a point separates the Cottagers and Preston, so just think what an away win at Craven Cottage would do to the make-up of the table.
If anything more than a good day out is to be brought back from the capital, it will need a better performance than the one produced for the first 45 minutes on Saturday.
Grayson held his hands up in terms of that, the 3-4-3 not working.
He tried that out in an absence of a right-back, a position which seems somewhat cursed this season.
Loan man Tyias Browning joined the injured list last Tuesday and will be sidelined for six weeks.
Browning will have the company of Alex Baptiste, Marnick Vermijl and Calum Woods in the treatment room.
Anyone who has seen the film ‘Spinal Tap’ will recall how the spoof rock band used to lose drummers as a rapid rate – it seems to be the same for North End when it comes to right-backs this term.
Reluctant to take Tom Clarke out of the middle, Grayson chose to use the skipper in a defensive three with Paul Huntington and the recalled Spurr.
Cunningham and Daryl Horgan got the wing-back slots, the slightly deeper role not suiting Horgan. Daniel Johnson returned from four games sat on the bench to partner Alan Browne in midfield, with McGeady in the hole behind Hugill and Callum Robinson.
“In the first half we were a bit disjointed but in the second half we were very good,” was the assessment from Grayson.
“I will take responsibility for being disjointed during the first half.
“We played a system which we had not played too much this season. We didn’t have a right-back available at the club and I thought a 3-4-3 might suit us with McGeady, Hugill and Robinson up there, with the wing-backs pushing on.
“We hadn’t had a lot of time to work on it to be honest.
“Until half-time we hung in there and then we decided to go back to the 4-4-2 and we looked a massive threat.”
Having used three at the back for big chunks of his four-year reign, Grayson going to a 4-4-2 this season has been a sea change.
In terms of goals it has worked, with the two scored on Saturday taking them on to 46 for the campaign – one more than they managed in the whole of last season.
They are looser at the back, conceding 41 so far this term as opposed to 45 in 2015/16.
However, the fact they are higher up the division and in touch with the play-offs, shows a more open policy is playing dividends.
Deepdale has become key this season, this the ninth win on home turf and a third on the bounce.
QPR traditionally do not enjoy their visits here, this the 11th trip without a win – the last was in 1980.
The Hoops might have felt that was about to change when they took a 36th-minute lead, one they probably deserved in the wake of how the first half-hour had panned out.
Darnell Furlong’s long throw-in bounced low in the box and through the legs of Spurr, falling to LUALUA who executed a back-heel into the net from six yards.
He celebrated with the same somersault his brother Lomana used to do.
PNE equalised in the 45th minute and in some style too, McGeady and Hugill as it stands having exclusivity on goal of the season contenders.
Taking Cunningham’s pass near the left-hand corner of the box, MCGEADY cut across before curling a superb right-foot shot into the far corner.
The winner came from much closer in, Horgan’s corner from the left met by HUGILL, his first shot pushed out by Smithies.
PNE’s top scorer was first to the rebound, lifting it into the net for his 11th goal of the campaign.
Freeman, booked in the first half for a foul on McGeady, saw red for a challenge on Spurr – one the fourth official brought to the ref’s attention.
Chris Maxwell 7
Made a couple of early saves as QPR started well but untroubled later on when Preston got on top. Decent handling and command of box.
Tom clarke 8
Another strong performance at the back from the skipper. Was on the right of a three-man defence before PNE switched to 4-4-2.
Paul Huntington 8
Commanding at the back, handled the threat of Matt Smith well and won pretty much everything in the air.
Tommy Spurr 7
Had an uncertain first half in the centre of defence but looked far better when moved to left-back and put in a very good display.
Daryl Horgan 7
We saw the best of the Irishman when he was switched to his accustomed winger role after playing as a wing-back in the first half.
Alan Browne 7
Got himself around the pitch well with plenty of energy, in many ways adopted the job which Ben Pearson usually does.
Daniel Johnson 7
Recalled to the side after four games on the bench, DJ worked hard and like many of his team-mates, improved in the second half.
Greg Cunningham 8
Swapped an attacking left wing-back role for the right-back slot after the interval and fitted into the unfamiliar position ever so well.
Aiden McGeady 8
Another stunning goal from the on-loan man hauled PNE level on the stroke of half-time. That was a game changer.
Callum Robinson 6
Did not particularly get into the game although did get the ball into the net in the second half only to see it flagged offside.
Jordan Hugill 7
Scored the winner, that his 11th goal of the season. Usual battling shift from the striker and good to see him score.
Tom Barkhuizen 7
This lad impresses me every time he comes on to the pitch. Only a good save denied him a first goal and his pace terrified QPR.
Subs (not used): Andy Boyle, Simon Makienok, Stevie May, Paul Gallagher, Jermaine Beckford, Anders Lindegaard.
QPR:Smithies, Onuoha, Perch, Lynch, Furlong (Ngbakoto 67), Wszolek, Manning, Freeman, Bidwell, Lualua (Mackie 73), Smith (Sylla 67). Subs (not used): Goss, Luongo, Petrasso, Ingram.
Referee: David Coote 6
ATTENDANCE: 10,848 (658 away)