Dave Seddon's big match verdict
Deepdale could hold the key to how the remainder of the season plays out for Preston.
Since the calender flipped over to 2017, the Lilywhites have found their form on home turf – form which has kept the play-offs in sight with the number of games now down to single figures.
The gap between them and sixth place was brought back down to six points by victory over Reading, one which was achieved with a display as good as any produced by PNE this season.
This was a fourth home win on the bounce and a seventh league game unbeaten in front of the Deepdale faithful.
Since that bump in the road on Boxing Day against Leeds it is five wins and two draws here, coupled with that was pushing Arsenal all the way in the FA Cup.
With their form on the road not as good in the same period – they have not won an away game since January 2 at Burton – home is where the heart is for North End.
A push into the play-offs would be a tall order but if it is to be done, the four games left at home will be key.
Nottingham Forest, Bristol City, Norwich and Rotherham are still to visit next month.
When sharing his thoughts on the victory over Reading, Simon Grayson acknowledged the good home form of late and how much the Preston players were enjoying it.
“We’ve a strong home record recently, the players enjoy playing here and the crowd enjoy watching the players do what they do,” said Grayson.
“Going into the game we knew it was an opportunity to get three points because of how we have been playing at home.”
Reading went the same way as QPR, Birmingham and Brentford had done in the past month, so too Brighton back in January.
The visitors had the better of the first 20 minutes or so, then Preston took charge.
It would be easy to label it as the Tom Barkhuizen show, such was the influence he had on the outcome.
The former Morecambe man scored twice, set up the other for Daryl Horgan and displayed a turn of pace as quick as anything I have seen in a white shirt for many a year.
He could have finished with a hat-trick and deserved to do so, the visitors relieved to see the back of him when cramp in both calf muscles forced him off for the final quarter-of-an-hour.
It has been a good week for Barkhuizen, his first three starts in North End colours seeing him find the net four times.
After netting what proved to be only a consolation at Fulham, then scoring a very late equaliser against Derby, he had spoken ahead of this game about wanting to score a winning goal.
Barkhuizen got his wish and better, his goals sandwiching Horgan’s second for the club.
The manner in which he has made the step up from League Two to Championship is impressive.
Used sensibly from the bench to help him settle in, he has taken his chance in the last week when getting the chance to start.
His first on Saturday was a delicious finish, swept first-time over the goalkeeper from the edge of the box.
The second he guided in from closer in, showing something of a predatory instinct inside the six-yard box.
Victory was no one-man show though, to say that would be doing his team-mates a big disservice on an occasion when they really clicked.
The defence held firm under early Royals pressure and then kept them at arms’ length as the contest went on.
Horgan impressed on the right wing, Aiden McGeady producing his usual bag of tricks down the left.
McGeady nut-megging a Reading defender with a back heel was box-office stuff but so too was a back heel from Paul Huntington – the Cumbrian Cannavaro!
Signed primarily to play on the wing, Barkhuizen showed his versatility by starting up front – he had finished there against Derby.
Grayson went 4-4-2, a formation boasting pace, energy and no small measure of skill.
The change in approach from last season, even from the early weeks of this term, is there to see.
Last year was about being solid and growing steadily into the Championship.
The shackles have come off this campaign, the additions of McGeady, Barkhuizen and Horgan, together with Hugill, Callum Robinson and Ben Pearson developing further, combining to produce a good attacking core.
Do not get me wrong, this is not the finished article and there is more to come.
If the top six proves a step too far this time, foundations are in place for a good go at it next season.
Fluorescent-clad Reading made the brighter start and had PNE on the back foot in the opening exchanges.
Chris Maxwell dived to push behind a powerful shot from Garath McCleary, the corner which resulted played across to Yann Kermorgant who met it on the volley.
Tom Clarke threw himself in the way to block and it was from there that North End went on to boss the game.
The statistics might show a 63%-37% possession count in favour of Reading but aside from that opening spell, you have to ask yourself how little did they hurt PNE with it?
North End took the lead in the 31st minute, Pearson’s pass sending Horgan scampering down the right.
He cut the ball back inside to BARKHUIZEN on the edge of the box who met it first-time, his shot arcing over Ali Al-Habsi.
That lead was doubled five minutes before the interval, the hosts clearing a corner with Barkhuizen collecting possession 10 yards outside his own box.
He sped up the pitch and into the penalty area, letting the ball run into the path of HORGAN, who saw his first shot blocked by Jordan Obita before stabbing the rebound home from 10 yards.
It was job done with the second half not four minutes old, Horgan’s free-kick to the far post knocked back by Andy Boyle for BARKHUIZEN to lift a shot over the keeper from five yards.
Chris Maxwell 8
Made a really good save from McCleary at 0-0 after which PNE got a grip on the game and went on to dominate it.
Tom Clarke 8
Excellent performance at right-back from the skipper, got in a great block to stop a volley from Kermorgant in the first half.
Paul Huntington 8
His back-heel was worth admission money alone! Marshalled the centre of defence well and deserved the clean sheet.
Andy Boyle 8
Home debut for the ex-Dundalk man and like at Derby in midweek, looked very comfortable. Played his part in the third goal.
Greg Cunningham 8
Part of a strong defensive unit which after the first 20 minutes, hardly gave Reading a sniff. Went close to scoring in the second half.
Daryl Horgan 8
An assist for the first goal and scored the second. All-action display down the right wing from the Irishman.
Ben Pearson 8
Gave North End a platform to play from, broke up Reading’s play and allowed his team-mates to push forward.
Daniel Johnson 7
Steady game in midfield, linked up play well to get PNE pushing forward. Not a headline-maker but did an effective job.
Aiden McGeady 8
Was a bag of tricks on the left wing, nut-megged a Reading defender with a back heel in the second half.
Tom Barkhuizen 9
A first start at Deepdale and what a day for the jet-heeled attacker with two goals and an assist. He has pace to burn.
Jordan Hugill 7
Put in a tireless shift up front, worked the centre-backs well and his hold-up play was very good.
Alan Browne 7
Replaced Horgan just after the hour mark as North End switched from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 to see out the game.
Callum Robinson 6
Joined the action 13 minutes from time in place of Barkhuizen who had cramp.
Jermaine Beckford 6
Beckford was introduced in the 87th minute to replace Hugill.
Subs not used: Simon Makienok, Tommy Spurr, Stevie May, Anders Lindegaard.
READING: Al-Habsi, McShane (Oxford 72), van den Berg, Blackett, Gunter, Mutch (Williams 33), Swift, Obita, Grabban (Beerens 77), McCleary, Kermorgant. Subs (not used): Evans. Meite, Popa, Jaakkola.
Referee: Scott Duncan 6
ATTENDANCE: 10,787 (513 away)