Dave Seddon's verdict on Preston North End's derby victory over Blackburn Rovers
Preston North End manager Alex Neil chose to twist rather than stick in the heat of this Lancashire derby, a decision which helped the Lilywhites to their biggest win over Blackburn for 40 years.
Neil’s men had flown out of the blocks to take a two-goal lead inside the opening 10 minutes at Deepdale.
But when Rovers pulled one back after half-time, Neil had some thinking to do.
Should North End sit back and hold on to what they had or go for the throat in a bid to open up a bigger margin?
They chose the latter and were rewarded with two more goals, three points and local bragging rights.
The 4-1 scoreline matched that of the Lancashire rivals’ August 1978 meeting, plenty of water having gone under the bridge since then.
In the last few seasons the rivalry has built up again, PNE now unbeaten in four against the team from up the M65.
This result the supporters probably savoured that little bit more than the 2016 victory at Ewood Park, the 3-2 home win two years ago and the 2-2 draw in which Aiden McGeady equalised in stoppage time last time around.
Neil’s decision to push for more rather than sit back was admirable bearing in mind he lost two of his star turns as the second half went on.
Callum Robinson limped off with a hamstring strain at 2-1, Ben Pearson succumbing to cramp when Preston led 3-1.
Every credit that those big losses didn’t derail them in the bid to put the game to bed.
Neil said: “The game was in the balance at 2-1 so I wanted to be proactive and aggressive to give us the upper hand, not just accept that Blackburn were going to dominate the ball.
“I had a decision to make when Callum Robinson went off – I could have secured it and gone more defensive.
“An option would have been to put Ryan Ledson in the middle and bump Alan Browne wide, try to solidify the middle of the park.
“But I think we are better when we are on the front foot and being aggressive than when we sit behind the ball and surrender possession.
“My substitutions are generally aggressive unless the flow is really going against us.”
Neil’s choice of subs proved key, that choice limited it must be said due to injuries which have ravaged the frontline this term.
Louis Moult was first off the bench to replace Lukas Nmecha who had found the Rovers centre-backs tough opponents.
Brandon Barker followed in place of Robinson, Ledson taking Pearson’s place when he cramped-up for the second time.
Moult scored the third goal and set up the fourth for Browne.
The pace of Barker was so effective in putting PNE on the front foot.
Ledson filled in for Pearson in the last few minutes to deny Rovers space to play in the midfield.
Pearson’s role in the victory cannot be underestimated.
He nullified the threat of Bradley Dack, a player who is in double figures of goals this term from the No.10 role.
While Dack had two scoring chances in the first half, both dealt with well by Declan Rudd, he had little effect on proceedings otherwise.
PNE fans had some fun on social media later with a ‘Where’s Dack?’ theme.
The Pearson/Dack battle was a mass of flowing locks, facial hair and aggression, one which the North End man won hands down.
Outside of that duel, there was plenty more on show from Pearson.
A number of times in the second half he was at the start of counter-attacks, carrying the ball out from the back well.
He kept a calmer head than on other occasions and was all the better for that.
Victory stretched the unbeaten run to eight games, wins now matching draws in a sequence which has lifted Preston from bottom to 16th place since October 2.
While they must still look over their shoulder at the clubs below, it is more than reasonable for them to cast an eye up the table too.
The gap between them and 10th-placed Rovers is down to five points, the Championship a squeezed beast this year.
Neil went with his usual 4-2-3-1 system, returns for Nmecha and Browne in place of injured duo Sean Maguire and Daniel Johnson the only changes.
He stuck with Rudd in goal rather than recalling Chris Maxwell after suspension.
That came as something of a surprise but credit to Rudd, he justified his selection with an assured display.
North End took an early grip on this game – very early in fact – finding the net with just 67 seconds played.
They opened up Rovers’ right-hand side, Ben Davies’ ball up the channel helped on by a Robinson header.
Browne flicked the ball over Darragh Lenihan, which gave him space to run into.
His low cross from the side of the box was met perfectly on the run by Barkhuizen, who shot home first time from 12 yards.
The lead doubled in the 10th minute, Browne again the creator as he picked up a Blackburn clearance.
He threaded a pass through to Robinson, who steered a low finish across goalkeeper David Raya.
Rovers had the better of the first half from then, to the point it was good for North End to get in at half-time with the two-goal cushion.
So it was rather annoying when Danny Graham, on as an interval sub, had the space to head home Harrison Reed’s free-kick in the 48th minute.
But any upper hand they might have held at that point wasn’t taken advantage of and North End re-grouped to take back their hold on the game.
Barkhuizen was the spark behind their third goal in the 74th minute, beating his man and cutting in from the right.
His low cross found Barker, the substitute’s shot hitting a defender and spinning into the path of Moult who made no mistake from five yards.
If it wasn’t already, victory was put in the bag with five minutes remaining.
Browne pushed forward and fed a pass to Moult on the right-hand side of the box.
When Moult lifted the ball into the middle, Browne was there to meet it with a volley across the keeper.