Joe Garner announced himself fit and raring to go after injury by scoring both Preston North End goals in Tuesday night’s victory over Chesterfield.
His start at the Proact Stadium was his first since undergoing surgery on a detached tendon in November.
Two substitute appearances against Sheffield United and Coventry had shaken the rust off him and PNE boss Simon Grayson chose to unleash him from the start in chilly Derbyshire.
It proved a wise decision to have Garner involved from the start, Spireites defender Sam Hird seeing red just two minutes in for bringing him down as he raced clear on goal.
By the half-hour mark Garner had found the net against the hosts’ 10-men, executing the most perfect of headers from a perfect Kevin Davies cross.
He doubled his evening’s tally in the 78th minute, netting from close range after a Davies effort had come back off the bar.
The one time which Garner looked disappointed was when Grayson substituted him late on, judging that his work was done for the night.
But the game was won by then, no need to take any unnecessary risks with Manchester United next up on Monday night.
It is just 11 weeks since Garner went under the knife to repair an injury - a tendon came off his shin bone - which was unusual in a footballer.
Quite frankly it looked like he had never been away as he led Chesterfield a merry dance.
He was sharp, full of running, annoyed defenders - typical of him before November’s injury.
This victory, which closed the gap on Swindon and MK Dons above them as well as stretching their advantage over the Spireites below, was not just about him though.
North End’s team as a whole fired on all cylinders to the delight of 458 travelling Preston supporters.
Davies was excellent next to Garner, while Paul Gallagher dropped into pockets between the midfield and attack.
At the back, the visitors defence protected Sam Johnstone to the extent he had little to do in keeping a second successive clean sheet.
Garner’s return was one of three changes made to the side which had beaten Coventry at the weekend.
John Welsh and Bailey Wright also came into the XI, with Neil Kilkenny, Chris Humphrey and the injured Calum Woods making way.
North End lined-up in a 3-5-2 system, Tom Clarke, Paul Huntington and Wright forming the back three.
Scott Wiseman and Scott Laird provided the width in the wing-back roles, with Welsh, Daniel Johnson and Gallagher in midfield.
Any late comers missed plenty of early action, less than sixty seconds played when Jay O’Shea’s free-kick was met by Hird who stabbed wide.
Hird’s next contribution was to be his last, the centre-half bringing down Garner a couple of yards outside the box after he had sprinted clear.
With him being the last man, referee Peter Bankes had little choice but to pull out the red card and send Hird for the earliest of early baths.
Gallagher took the resulting free-kick, keeper Tommy Lee diving to parry it away with Laird heading the rebound over the bar.
The Spireites reshuffled their side in the wake of the sending-off, Daniel Jones substituted and replaced by Charlie Raglan who went into the position which Hird had vacated.
Preston pushed forward looking to take advantage of their extra man, Gallagher seeing a shot deflected wide after making a strong run out of midfield.
At the other end, an ambitious O’Shea shot from distance cleared Sam Johnstone’s bar by some distance.
Ian Evatt got on the end of an O’Shea free-kick but did not make a proper connection and saw his header drop wide.
A Wiseman cross was fired wide by Garner before the returning front man gave North End the lead on the half-hour mark.
Wiseman’s pass up the right-wing found Davies who delivered a peach of a cross into the box, GARNER burying it into the bottom corner of the net with a powerful header.
He turned and ran to the technical area to celebrate his goal with physio Matt Jackson who had helped nurse him back to fitness.
Laird almost doubled the lead in the 36th minute, his left-foot drive from fully 25 yards superbly kept out by Lee who sprang to tip it away.
Two minutes into first-half stoppage time, a cross was Tendayi Darikwa was headed over the bar by O’Shea.
Within the opening 30 seconds of the second period, Garner’s lay-off ran to Davies in the box but his side-foot shot was blocked by Raglan.
Garner went to ground just inside the area under a challenge but referee Bankes shook his head at the penalty appeal.
Soon after, Gallagher shot wide with a first-time effort after a blocked Garner volley had fallen into his path.
In the 57th minute, a looping header from Byron Harrison dropped wide of the target after he had got on the end of a cross from the left.
A ball out of defence from Paul Huntington found Garner down the inside-right channel.
The front man chested it down and hit an angled shot to try and find the far corner but Lee dived to save.
Chesterfield went so close to an equaliser with 65 minutes played, Caolan Lavery’s pass finding Harrison close in but he lifted his shot over the bar.
The visitors went close themselves with their next attack, Garner getting on the end of a Wiseman cross but seeing his header plucked from under the bar by Lee.
Wiseman was replaced by Humphrey soon after, the former Motherwell man going into the right-back slot.
Victory was sealed 12 minutes from time, Garner in the right place at the right time to score his second of the night.
His bullet header from a Davies cross was finger-tipped over the bar by Lee to earn a corner, one which Gallagher delivered from the right.
Clarke nodded it down, Davies’ shot hit the bar, the ball coming out to GARNER who nodded in from close in.
That was his work done, the hero of the night replaced in the closing stages by Sylvan Ebanks-Blake.
Johnson also departed late on, replaced by Kilkenny - fresh legs in order to see out the last few minutes.
The final whistle was greeted by a huge cheer from the away end and groans from the home section.
Chesterfield: Lee, Darikwa, Evatt, Morsy, Jones (Raglan 5), O’Shea, Ryan, Hird, Harrison (Duffy 68), Lavery (Dieseruvwe 68), Clucas. Subs not used: Chapman, Humphries, Banks, Ariyibi.
Booked: Ryan 43, O’Shea 88
Sent-off: Hird 2
PNE: Johnstone, Clarke, Huntington, Wright, Wiseman (Humphrey 70), Welsh, Johnson (Kilkenny 88), Gallagher, Laird, Davies, Garner (Ebanks-Blake 82). Subs not used: Buchanan, Reid, King, Stuckmann.
Booked: Johnson 23, Gallagher 90
Referee: Peter Bankes (Liverpool)
Attendance: 6,309 (458 PNE)