Jermaine Beckford’s sublime double fired promotion chasing Preston North End to a vital 3-1 victory over Notts County in a tense affair at Meadow Lane.
Beckford skilfully opened the scoring in the 23rd minute as the ex-Premier League star chipped the ball over a helpless County defender before spinning and smashing the ball past Roy Carroll.
Joe Garner scored his 23rd goal of the season in acrobatic fashion in the 31st minute to increase North End’s lead.
The tenacious striker showed his never-say-die attitude as he threw himself into the air to direct the ball towards goal and the ball trickled over the line to give PNE a two goal cushion at the break.
But it was not an easy ride as the relegation threatened Magpies fought back. And after some increasing pressure North End conceded in the 72nd minute as Jimmy Spencer got the better of Paul Huntington before thundering the ball past Sam Johnstone from close range.
Time stood still at Meadow Lane as Beckford honed in on goal with five minutes left.
1,244 travelling North End fans had their hearts in their mouths as the striker sprinted through on goal after a slick one-two with Daniel Johnson in the 85th minute.
But the coolest man on the pitch absorbed the pressure and raced down the left of the box before slotting the ball home with ease to score his first double for the club.
The result means second-placed North End are still a point in front of third-placed MK Dons after Karl Robinson’s side beat Doncaster Rovers 3-0 at stadium:mk.
Former North Ender Will Hayhurst started for County but the winger was brought off at half-time.
As usual North End started well. Garner fired wide in the 10th minute and Scott Laird’s strike flew straight at Roy Carroll six minutes later.
County took a short corner and Garner was on hand to head Burke’s cross off the line in the 19th minute.
And North End took the lead in the 23rd minute as Gallagher chipped the ball into Beckford’s path. The striker flicked the ball over his marker, spun and smashed the ball past Carroll.
Garner made it two in the 31st minute as he acrobatically diverted the ball home from close range. Beckford pounced on Tom Clarke’s cross but his shot rebounded into the path of Garner who flung himself through the air to get a foot to the ball. His shot hit a County elbow in the box but eventually trickled over the line.
County had their first shot on target in the 35th minute as Johnstone comfortably collected Graham Burke’s set-piece.
Burke tested Johnstone once more minutes later but the keeper collected with ease.
Jordan Williams long range effort stung Johnstone’s palms as the keeper dived low to his right to stop the right back’s strike in the 40th minute.
North End went in at the break two goals up but after leading both of their last two games at half-time and eventually drawing PNE did not rest on their laurels.
Garner was straight out of the blocks and snapping at the heels of County’s defence as he harassed the back line to win North End’s first corner of the game within seconds of the re-start.
But County refused to roll over and the Magpies had the first clear chance of the half. Jimmy Spencer picked the ball up just outside the box before spinning and unleashing a fierce strike that flew over Johnstone’s bar in the 47th minute.
Carroll was booked in the 64th minute for back-chatting as County won a set-piece in a promising position. But Noble’s free-kick was deflected over the bar by a PNE head.
And County pulled a goal back as Spencer pounced on the loose ball in the box and fired home from just outside the six-yard box in the 72nd minute.
Garner was booked for simulation in the 75th minute.
The goal boosted County and goalscorer Spencer latched on the ball in the six-yard box moments later but Johnstone dived on the ball.
Johnstone made a fine save in the 83rd minute as Garry Thompson broke free on the right. Fortunately for PNE the keeper managed to stop the strike with his legs.
But it was North End who finally seized the game by the scruff of the net two minutes later. Garner’s flick-on fuelled some neat passing play between Johnson and Beckford and the on-loan Bolton striker stormed into the box to calmly bag his 12th goal of the season.
Notts County: Carroll, Smith (Thompson, 90), Mullins, Hollis, Hayhurst (Noble, 46), Spencer, Thompson, Jones, Burke, Edwards (Bajner, 60), Williams. Subs not used: Pilkington, Wroe, Lita, Cranston.
PNE: Johnstone, Clarke, Wright, Huntington, Laird, Welsh, Johnson, Gallagher (Kilkenny, 80), Beckford, Garner (Davies, 90), Robinson (Woods, 80). Subs not used: Stuckmann, Humphrey, Kilkenny, Davies, Woods, Reid, Ebanks-Blake.
Referee: Carl Boyeson (East Yorkshire)
Attendance: 4769 1244.