Super sub Josh Brownhill stoppage time strike inspired a late fight back but Sheffield United weathered the storm at a sodden Bramall Lane to beat Preston North End 2-1.
Blades striker Marc McNulty drew first blood in the 52nd minute as he pounced on the loose ball in PNE’s box and - view the aid of a deflection - sent the ball looping over helpless PNE keeper Thorsten Stuckmann.
The Blades cut through PNE’s middle like a hot knife through butter and doubled their tally. Jamie Murphy charged at North End’s static midfield before teeing-up an unmarked Jamal Campbell Ryce on the right of the penalty box. The winger - who broke PNE player Scott Laird’s leg whilst playing for Notts County - ran through to double United’s lead in the 70th minute, firing the ball through Stuckmann’s legs from a tight angle.
United keeper Mark Howard managed to get a hand to substitute Josh Brownhill’s slick stoppage time set-piece but the ball sailed into the right corner of goal as North End staged a late fight back.
The Blades held on to victory and ensured Simon Grayson’s men suffered their second successive defeat.
PNE boss Grayson made two changes to the side that lost 2-0 to Walsall in the JPT Northern Area final first leg on Wednesday.
John Welsh recovered from injury to replace Alan Browne in central midfield whilst David Buchanan slotted back in at left back in place of Scott Laird who was dropped from the 18.
Beckford fired two headers way wide of the target as PNE failed to test Blades keeper Mark Howard early on.
McNulty got the better of PNE captain Tom Clarke before firing the ball straight down the throat of Stuckmann in the 38th minute.
Neil Kilkenny was booked moments later for fouling Blades skipper Michael Doyle.
Blades midfielder Jose Baxter hammered a long range effort through a crowd of bodies in the 40th minute but his low strike skimmed wide of Stuckmann’s left hand post.
Paul Gallagher’s curling shot flew inches wide of Howard’s left hand post and Huntington’s goalbound header was cleared just two yards out by Blades defender Bob Harris as PNE upped the ante late in the first half.
Harris was in the action up the other end at the start of the second half as his fierce strike forced Stuckmann into a diving save.
And the Blades finally struck in the 52nd minute as McNulty pounced on the loose ball in PNE’s box and lifted the ball over Stuckmann.
The Blades continued to attack and Doyle wasted a golden opportunity as he ran one-on-one with Stuckmann. But United’s captain did not even test the German shot-stopper as he fired the ball wide of the left post.
Murphy went straight for the jugular, charging through the middle past PNE’s midfield before setting up Campbell Ryce who nutmegged Stuckmann to double the host’s tally.
Buchanan’s shot was parried by the Blades keeper into the path of sub Kyel Reid but the winger smashed the ball wide.
Harris robbed the ball off Gallagher in the 86th minute before running towards PNE’s box and skimming a low shot past Stuckmann’s left hand post.
Gallagher was fouled on the edge of the box and substitute Brownhill stepped up to fire the ball past Howard into the top right hand corner in the first minute of stoppage time.
PNE: Stuckmann, Wiseman, Clarke, Huntington, Buchanan, Humphrey (Ebanks-Blake, 77), Welsh (Brownhill, 66), Kilkenny, Gallagher, Davies, Beckford (Reid, 66). Subs not used: Jones, Wright, Woods, Browne.
Booked: Kilkenny, Beckford, Clarke.
Sheffield United: Howard, Harris, Flynn, Doyle, Murphy, Scougall (Wallace, 81), Baxter (Wallace, 85), McNulty, McEveley, Campbell-Ryce (Alcock, 79), Kennedy. Subs not used: Higdon, Reed, Turner, Adams.
Referee: Geoff Eltringham (Sunderland)
Attendance: 19902 (PNE 1599)