Preston Grasshoppers saw out the old year in style with one of their grittiest performances in recent memory to topple National League Two North high-flyers Sedgley Park after gifting them a perfect start.
On an afternoon of torrential rain, missed tackles in midfield saw the visitors 7-0 up in two minutes. But there is a new air of confidence and determination around Lightfoot Green and Hoppers dug deep to earn a well-deserved victory, their fourth in the last five games.
“We looked a bit nervous at the start,” said head coach Garth Dew, “but this was a fantastic finish to the year. I feel we have turned the corner after a hard 18 months.
“We were guilty of trying to play too much rugby at the start of the year and we got taught a few lessons. But we have learned to play in the right areas and build pressure.
“We were giving away probably a stone a man in the pack, but we wanted it more than them and fronted up really well.
“Our key message to the lads is: get a smile on your face and believe that we are a good team. We now know we can beat anyone in this league. We are in a good position to kick on in the New Year; give me a reason why we can’t finish in the top five!”
Matt Riley’s break through dodgy tackling set up brother Andy for that opening score, converted by Steve Collins, but Hoppers quickly replied with an angled penalty from Sean Taylor.
A line-out drive, with Preston guilty of standing back somewhat, brought an unconverted try for Sedgley flanker Danny Waddy before Taylor slotted one out of two penalty attempts.
He was unable to convert Hoppers’ first try, finished off by Scott Jordan after great work by scrum-half Sam Whyte, but the hosts were right back in the game and remained just one point behind at half-time thanks in no small part to some great defence on their own line.
Collins landed a simple penalty nine minutes into the second half, but from then on it was almost all Hoppers, despite a yellow card for substitute lock Reece Tomlinson. They were winning some important turnovers as the Tigers looked remarkably shaky for a side second in the table.
As Tomlinson’s time in the sinbin was coming to an end, Park prop Johnny Warrington also received a yellow card from referee Brendan McGaffney and, unlike the visitors, Preston took full advantage of the extra man.
Taylor hit the post with a penalty but was bang on target with the touchline conversion when another fine piece of play by Whyte put Jordan in for his second touchdown following a huge scrum by Hoppers.
Taylor missed a couple more penalties but Hoppers’ victory margin could still have been bigger had Jordan not been marginally offside before he pounced on Mark Murray’s pinpoint cross-kick to go over.
Murray and Whyte played the perfect kicking game in the conditions.
“Mark epitomises what we’re about and controls the game well in wet weather,” said Dew, who also had high praise for the work of Taylor and Jordan.
But in the end, it was the efforts of a pack which was totally on top by the end which set the platform for an epic victory to lift Preston to 10th in the table.