Greg Cunningham returned to haunt his former club Bristol City as his late diving header clinched all three points for Preston North End at Ashton Gate.
The defender enjoyed a three year spell at City before joining Simon Grayson’s men in July 2015 and the Irishman opened his North End goalscoring account in style with a thundering header at the back post in the 80th minute.
The goal was Paul Gallagher’s second assist of the night after he had earlier whipped the ball into the six-yard box for Nathan Baker to nod the ball past his own keeper Richard O’Donnell in the 52nd minute.
City clawed their way back to level terms just four minutes later as talismanic captain Aaron Wilbaraham’s low effort took a deflection and whistled past Sam Johnstone.
Jonathan Kodjia’s header smashed into the post in injury time but North End held on and the victory saw Simon Grayson’s men climb to 13th in the Championship table.
Grayson made five changes to the side that crashed out of the FA Cup at Peterborough on Saturday.
Ben Pearson signed from Manchester United yesterday and went straight into the starting XI as Bailey Wright, Gallagher, Daniel Johnson and Calum Woods all returned to the fold.
John Welsh failed to recover from a dead leg he picked up on Saturday and Marnick Vermijl and Alan Browne moved to the bench.
Adam Reach also dropped to the bench but he was injured in the warm-up so Josh Brownhill (who was originally omitted from the 16-man squad after starting at London Road) was called up to the bench.
City’s Luke Ayling attempted the spectacular from distance and PNE keeper Sam Johnstone swung at thin air as he tried to punch away a City corner but neither side showed any real malice in front of goal in a lacklustre opening 20 minutes.
Ayling was the first name in referee James Linington’s book after he upended former team mate Cunnigham in the 23rd minute.
Gallagher’s curling effort flew wide and Joe Bryan’s angled left-footed effort sailed over the bar.
It was a scrappy half with City dominating possession but lacking a clinical edge in the final third as North End constantly looked to counter and catch Steve Cotterill’s side on the break.
Gallagher’s 20-yard effort was spilled and collected by O’Donnell just before the break and a handful of boos erupted from a pocket of City fans when Linington blew for half-time.
The first half may have been dull as dishwater but the second half was an all action end-to-end affair as both sides went for the kill.
City started the second 45 brightly but Aaron Wilbraham mistimed a header and Kodjia smashed the ball straight down Johnstone’s throat.
PNE’s new boy Pearson barely had a touch in the first half as City dominated the middle of the park but the former Barnsley loanee was instrumental in the build up to the Lilywhites’ goal as Gallagher lifted the ball into the box and Baker nodded the ball into his own net under pressure from Garner in the 52nd minute.
It was a goal that echoed Browne’s unfortunate own goal against Leeds but City had their own slice of fortune four minutes later.
Wilbraham pounced on Aden Fint’s cross in the box but his shot took a wicked deflection that wrong-footed Johnstone and fizzed into the net.
Moments later Johnson beat the offside trap to run one-on-one with O’Donnell but his shot agonisingly crashed back off the right hand post with the keeper left for dead.
Pearson fired over from 20-yards and Johnstone made a fine, low, one-handed fingertip stop to prevent Wilbraham doubling his tally.
Flint was booked for a late challenge on Wright and Johnstone made another one-handed stop as he dived to his left to tip substitute Bobby Reid’s curling strike wide.
Robinson was booed by a handful of the home support as he replaced Eoin Doyle in the 71st minute.
But it was another City old boy, Cunningham, who made his former club pay for some sloppy marking at the back stick as he flew through the air and powerfully headed Gallagher’s corner from the left into the net in the 80th minute.
City were far from down and out as they hunted for an equaliser in the six minutes of added time.
The host’s were denied by the woodwork and the strong palms of shot-stopper Johnstone as Kodjia’s back post header rattled back of the left post and substitute Kieran Agard’s rasping 20-yard shot was batted away by the on-loan Manchester United keeper just before the full-time whistle.
PNE: Johnstone, Clarke, Huntington Wright, Woods (Vermijl, 88), Cunningham, Johnson, Pearson (Browne, 82), Gallagher, Doyle (Robinson, 71), Garner. Subs not used: Kirkland, Kilkenny, Hugill, Brownhill.
Bristol City: O’Donnell, Little (Burns, 77), Flint, Ayling, Smith, Freeman (Reid, 56), Baker, Wilbraham (Agard, 77), Pack, Kodjia, Byran. Subs not used: O’Leary, Williams, El-Abd, Wagstaff.
Referee: James Linington (Isle of White)
Attendance 14586 (346 PNE)