Match report: PNE 1 Walsall 0

PNE v Walsall
PNE v Walsall
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Preston North End kept up their promotion push with victory over Walsall which they made harder work of than they should have done.

The Lilywhites bossed long spells of the contest but only had Daniel Johnson’s 19th minute goal to show for that dominance.

Johnson scored for the second successive game, guiding home a low shot from Chris Humphrey’s cross.

North End should have had at least two more goals in the first half, with Saddlers goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell pulling off a string of saves.

Then twice in the first six minutes of the second period, they hit the woodwork through Paul Gallagher and Tom Clarke.

But as the game went on, PNE dropped deeper and deeper as the Saddlers got on the front foot in search of an equaliser.

It needed a fine save from Sam Johnstone in the fourth minute of injury-time to keep the lead in tact and prevent the visitors grabbing an equaliser.

The win was Preston’s fourth in the league on the spin, all with clean sheets.

Simon Grayson had named as unchanged North End side.

The Lilywhites boss kept faith with the same XI and substitutes which had been on duty for last Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Scunthorpe.

Grayson started with the 4-1-4-1 formation which he had switched to at half-time in the Scunthorpe game.

John Welsh was in a deep midfield role, with Humphrey, Johnson, Gallagher and Callum Robinson spread in front of him - all providing support for Joe Garner up front.

Much of the first half was one-way traffic in the direction of the Bill Shankly Kop as North End pressed and pressed their visitors.

Inside the opening two minutes, Garner got on the end of Gallagher’s curling cross but could only direct his diving header straight at O’Donnell.

Paul Huntington steered an effort wide of the post after Welsh had lifted the ball back into the box following the clearing of a free-kick.

Only a fine O’Donnell save prevented PNE taking an eighth-minute lead, Humphrey’s cross had travelled to Gallagher at the back post.

Gallagher controlled the ball on his thigh and volleyed goalwards, only for O’Donnell to dive and glove it behind.

It was then Garner’s turn to be denied by the keeper, his header parried out after Scott Laird had found him with a searching centre.

As the pressure built, Robinson won possession down the inside-left channel and fed a pass inside to Gallagher.

He in turn slid the ball through to free Garner in the box but the striker could not get it out of his feet properly and put a tame effort too near O’Donnell.

North End made a deserved breakthrough in the 19th minute, Humphrey powering down the right-wing and muscling his way past Rico Henry as he reached the box.

He pulled the ball back from near the byline, it running into the path of Johnson who did not break stride before shooting home first-time from 10 yards.

Walsall claimed Humphrey had fouled Henry when barging past him, the left-back suffering a suspected dislocated shoulder as he fell.

The hosts could have scored again five minutes later, Gallagher’s free-kick from the right staying low and getting through to Huntington at the far post.

But the ball struck the bottom of the centre-back’s boot and rolled through to the keeper.

A rare first-half Walsall chance saw Michael Cain drill a low shot from the edge of the box well wide of the target.

Back at the other end, Humphrey came inside off the right-wing on to his left foot and struck a shot which O’Donnell gathered.

Walsall saw more of the ball in the closing few minutes of the first period but did not threaten Johnstone’s in that time.

The second half was only 48 seconds old when Gallagher’s shot from approaching 25 yards came back off the bar, with Garner heading the rebound over.

In the 52nd minute the woodwork was rattling again, Clarke this time hitting the post with a header after steaming in to meet a Gallagher corner which had been won by the industrious Humphrey.

The skipper clashed heads with James Chambers in the process and was down on the turf having treatment for a couple of minutes before being taken off and replaced by Scott Wiseman.

Garner put a powerful header a few inches too high after springing up to meet Gallagher’s corner from the right.

In the 70th minute, Saddlers winger Anthony Forde tried his luck with a low shot from 20 yards which Johnstone positioned himself well behind to save comfortably.

When Preston went back on the attack, Robinson tested O’Donnell with an angled drive, the keeper diving to hold at the foot of the near post.

Walsall saw plenty of the ball in the later stages as North End dropped deeper and deeper to defend their slender advantage.

Deepdale got more nervous as time ticked on, the anxiety growing when the fourth official signalled six minutes of stoppage-time.

In the fourth minute of that added period, a corner from Saddlers substitute James Baxendale was flicked goalwards by James O’Connor, it needing a fine save from Johnstone to glove it off the line.

Fortunately there were no more scares after that, North End managing the final couple of minutes well and keeping the ball at the other end.

PNE: Johnstone, Clarke (Wiseman 55), Huntington, Wright, Humphrey, Welsh, Johnson, Gallagher, Laird, Robinson (Kilkenny 78), Garner (Davies 90). Subs not used: Buchanan, Reid, Ebanks-Blake, Stuckmann.

Walsall: O’Donnell, Purkiss, O’Connor, J Chambers, Henry (Taylor 23), A Chambers, Cain, Grimes (Sawyers 60), Forde (Baxendale 75), Cook, Hiwula. Subs not used: Preston, Flanagan, Murphy, MacGillivray.

Referee: Darren Drysdale (Lincolnshire)

Attendance: 7,779 (127 away)