‘Unplayable’ Danny Mayor had Deepdale on its feet as he led Preston North End’s 1-0 victory against play-off candidates Huddersfield.
North End supporters have always loved their wingers, and they were delighted with the performance of the Leyland wideman in a win which all-but assured League One football next season.
Mayor’s show was perhaps the best individual performance from a PNE player this season, with him gliding almost effortlessly through the Town defence time and time again.
He set up the winning goal in the 54th minute, cutting into the box after a short corner routine and rolling the ball to Chris Robertson who applied the finishing touch from close range.
And the 20-year-old helped carved out further openings which could quite easily have seen North End stretch their advantage.
One goal proved enough though, to see off a frankly disappointing Huddersfield side who looked anything but top-six material.
That shouldn’t detract from the hosts’ performance in a game which took a good half hour to warm-up before coming to life.
The visitors never got the measure of Mayor as he came inside from the left-wing and moved the ball on to his favoured right foot.
Paul Coutts was almost as good in the centre of midfield, the pair keeping Preston on the front foot in their bid for victory.
Although not normally a manager to pick individuals out for praise, Graham Westley kept the plaudits coming long after the standing ovation at the final whistle had died down.
This was only the third win of his PNE stewardship but perhaps one which will help breakdown the distrust some sections of the Deepdale faithful have of him.
Applause greeted Westley’s walk to the tunnel at the final whistle, in contrast to the blood baying of just a few weeks ago.
The North End boss said: “Offensively, Coutts and Mayor were on another level out there. Both of them made fantastic contributions to a good attacking performance in the second half.
“Mayor was virtually unplayable coming in off the left-wing, and Coutts took real responsibility, both offensively and defensively.
“The pair were a real handful going forward and there were chances aplenty in the second half.
“In a very good team display, these two players deserved a lot of credit.”
Westley’s opposite number Simon Grayson felt his Huddersfield team had made life far too easy for Preston.
Maybe such a view unfairly took something away from a thoroughly deserved win, although few of the 11,267 crowd would have been impressed with what they saw from West Yorkshire oufit.
If they are going to make any sort of impact in the play-offs, they will need to raise more of a gallop than they did on Saturday.
Grayson said: “I thought we made Preston look an ordinary team in the first half.
“But then the lack of the leaders on that pitch exposed us and we looked vulnerable.
“We made them look like Real Madrid in the second half.”
There was a touch of truth in Grayson’s words when it came to his second-half analysis, the Madrid quote his way of admitting that North End were the better side.
As for the opening 45 minutes, both sides looked rather ordinary, the game only awakening from its slumbers once the half-hour mark had passed.
A switch of shape changed Preston for the better, a 4-4-2 evolving to a 4-2-3-1 which helped them cope much better with Town’s 4-5-1.
The key was Coutts stepping inside from the right-wing to have much more influence in the centre.
We started to see more of the Coutts of old, more of a return to the type of form he produced earlier in the campaign.
It should be noted that this win was achieved without the services of Iain Hume and Paul Parry in the second half.
They’d limped down the tunnel in quick succession to each other in the run-up to the interval, giving way to Graham Cummins and Craig Morgan.
After an opening 30 minutes to forget, the tempo was raised by decent chance at either end within moments of each other.
Jordan Rhodes put a shot too close to Thorsten Stuckmann after being played in on the edge of the box by Anton Robinson’s lay-off.
North End’s response was a low curling effort from Mayor which Town’s veteran keeper Ian Bennett palmed round the far post at full stretch.
By this stage the hosts had switched formation, Max Ehmer and Andy Procter playing anchoring roles in the centre of midfield. In front them spread across the pitch were Hume, Coutts and Mayor, with Chris Holroyd operating up front.
Holroyd smacked a 37th minute drive against the post during his spell as lone striker, later switching out wide when Hume went off, allowing Cummins to play the central role.
The second half was entertaining from start to finish, the contest’s winner arriving nine minutes into it.
Mayor played a corner on the left short to Coutts and took the return pass, cutting inside into the box.
He then rolled the ball along the face of the six-yard box into the path of ROBERTSON who scooped a left-foot shot up into the roof of the net.
Other chances followed for Mayor and Cummins, the substitute’s opportunity coming after Coutts had surged forward over the half-way line on the break and played him in. But coming into the box at a slight angle, his low shot lacked power and Bennett was able to save comfortably.
Huddersfield rallied towards the end as they looked to avoid a third straight defeat, their main threat coming in the shape of centre-half Sean Morrison who slung over some long throw-ins.
It was a tactic which in the main the PNE back line stood up to well, although four-and-a-half minutes of stoopage-time did have the nerves jangling somewhat.
Only a swing of epic proportions can now threaten their League One status, North End nine points clear of 21st place Wycombe and boasting a better goal difference with three to play.
Why they’ve had to sweat until this late in the season is a debate for another day, let’s just enjoy this win for the time being.
PRESTON: Stuckmann 7, Gray 8, Robertson 7, Wright 7, Parry 6 (Morgan 44), Coutts 8, Ehmer 7, Procter 6 (Hunt 85), Mayor 9, Hume 6 (Cummins 42), Holroyd 7. Subs: Aneke, Arestidou.
Booked: Morgan 45, Coutts 61, Robertson 83
HUDDERSFIELD: Bennett, Hunt, Morrison, P Clarke, Woods, Arismendi (Miller 67), Ward (Novak 56), Arfield, Robinson (Cadamarteri 79), Roberts, Rhodes. Subs: Clarke, Colgan.
Booked: Robinson 35, Woods 79
ref: Andy D’Urso (Essex)