Preston fans were treated to a rare opening-day victory and Alex Neil hopes the deserved win over Sheffield Wednesday is a sign of things to come.
Not since 2008 had North End been successful first time around and you have go back further to 2004 for it to have happened at Deepdale.
It was a great way for Neil to officially introduce himself to the Preston faithful and show that he is getting his ideas across to the squad.
This display blended some eye-catching football which the Scotsman desires, with a solidity which had been PNE’s hallmark in recent years.
Defensively, North End did not give Wednesday a sniff, the visitors registering just one shot on target – a tame effort which rolled at Chris Maxwell.
Going the other way Neil’s men moved the ball well and as the game went on, began to stretch and open-up the Owls back line.
It took Daniel Johnson’s 79th minute penalty to break the deadlock and settle the contest but make no mistake, victory was deserved.
Contrast the mood of the fans at the final whistle – three side of Deepdale were on their feet to applaud Preston down the tunnel, while in the Bill Shankly Kop, Wednesday’s big following registered their displeasure.
The passing football was certainly appreciated by the home support, something Neil wants to build on.
“What we want is to get as many fans through the gate as possible,” said the PNE boss.
“The only way to do that is by playing well and winning games.
“Hopefully we pleased a lot of people and they will come back and support us.
“It is three points on the board that we are not relying on picking-up later.
“Notoriously in the last two seasons we have not started well – I think we lost six of the first eight last year.
“So it is really pleasing to get three points early doors.”
Over the last month, Neil had been overseeing a change in approach in PNE’s play.
In the friendlies we saw it developing, a 4-2-3-1 system designed to play out from the back and move the ball sharply between the opposition lines.
Against the Owls, North End had to modify their approach a touch due to the visitors pushing their strikers high to press.
Neil said: “We can mix our game up if needs be.
“If teams sit off us, we can play passes and pick them off, if they want to press us we can play and link off the front.
“You have to have more than one string to your bow at this level and I thought we showed that in both halves on Saturday.”
The spine of Preston’s team stood strong for the visit of a the Owls, a side who had made the play-offs for the last two seasons.
Ben Pearson was the heartbeat in midfield, plenty of the play going through him.
Up front, Sean Maguire led the line well, not giving the Wednesday back line any peace in the 75 minutes he was on the pitch.
At the back, centre-halves Paul Huntington and Tommy Spurr were excellent.
The spotlight had been shone on Preston’s back line by reason of the goals let in against Burnley and Fleetwood in the final two friendlies.
There was a concern the defence lacked height, so too the ability to play out from the back in the way Neil wants.
While they do have their shortcomings, those were not evident on Saturday.
The clean sheet says it all, as do the match stats which show the low number of chances created by the visitors.
Jordan Rhodes and Fernando Forestieri had little impact, with them well policed by Huntington and Spurr.
Gary Hooper fared no better when coming on for ex-Blackburn front man Rhodes who looked a pale shadow of a £10m striker on this occasion.
Spurr’s inclusion against one of his former clubs – ahead of Ben Davies – was perhaps the biggest call selection-wise made by Neil by reason that much of his football in the last 12 months at Preston had come at left-back.
“Tommy Spurr for me is a left-sided centre-back, I don’t think he is a left-back,” said Neil.
“His use of the ball is very good, he competes really well and is a good talker.
“I think he had a good game as did the rest of the lads.”
It was hard to find fault with any of the players in a white shirt.
For me, Pearson, Maguire, Greg Cunningham and the pair of centre-backs stood out, Callum Robinson too.
Darnell Fisher had a very steady debut, he’s certainly a right-back who likes to get forward.
The first half of this clash was feisty – niggly almost – with a yellow card apiece for Pearson and Forestieri.
PNE had the few chances there were, the best coming the way of Maguire shortly before the interval.
His shot after he had spun and got down the left hand side of the box, was parried past the near post by Kieren Westwood.
You saw North End begin to take more of a grip on the game as the second half went on, the contest opening up.
Spurr sent a header against the bar from 12 yards after he had met a corner from Paul Gallagher – just on as a sub.
He had followed Jordan Hugill into the action from the bench, it being Hugill who helped break the deadlock with 11 minutes left.
He surged forward down the left channel and into the box where his run was halted by a sliding challenge from Tom Lee.
Referee Tony Harrington awarded a penalty, JOHNSON doing his dancing on the spot and stuttering run-up before finding the bottom corner.
Hugill had the ball in the net in the closing minutes but was penalised for using his arm to help bring down a fine through ball from Fisher.
With such a slender lead, the signal for five additional minutes did lead to a feeling of deja-vu from the New Year’s meeting when Wednesday scored in the dying second of stoppage-time.
Happily PNE saw out the game comfortably enough, the Neil era up-and-running and supporters optimistic about what can be done over the next few months.