Preston’s FA Cup victory over Wycombe was an afternoon when everything was right with the football world.
For starters, put to one side the gap of two divisions between the teams, after all you can only beat what is in front of you.
North End did that with a ruthless efficiency, scoring five goals in an away FA Cup tie for only the second time.
The performance was a five-star show, earning a ring endorsement from the manager who was on the wrong end of it.
Gareth Ainsworth is a man with a deep love for Preston in his blood from three spells as a player.
He regularly spilt that blood for the North End cause in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Now Ainsworth is a boss with the rock star look, in his fifth year in charge at Adams Park.
He had hoped to cause a cup upset in this third-round tie, that hope effectively going out of the window with a swing of Josh Harrop’s right boot just 83 seconds in.
Bar a brief wobble either side of the interval, Preston were the dominant force.
That was acknowledged by a candid Ainsworth once the dust had settled.
“It shows the gulf in class in the leagues,” he said. “We were playing one of the form teams in the Championship and it really did tell.
“They were on their ‘A’ game, we didn’t get to ours and that’s the tale of 5-1.”
Tactically, Alex Neil got this one spot on, allowing North End to turn on the quality in the manner they did.
He went for a nippy front four to manoeuvre the home team out of position.
Harrop, Callum Robinson, Daryl Horgan and Billy Bodin dropped into space, dragged defenders out of position, used their pace.
At the other end, a solid and experienced back four was in place to handle the home side’s attack, Adebayo Akinfenwa the spearhead.
The big lad knows how to bully defences but got little change out of skipper Tom Clarke who had been given the job of marking him.
Victory was achieved without four of Neil’s regulars who he left behind for a well-deserved breather.
Ben Davies, Jordan Hugill, Ben Pearson and keeper Chris Maxwell stayed at home.
The conspiracy theorists smelled a rat with Hugill’s omission, left out they reasoned to prevent him being cup-tied ahead of a big-money move.
That was overlooking the fact the striker was running on empty for the latter stages of the Middlesbrough game on New Year’s Day.
If Hugill was to leave in January, I doubt any fee would be hit by him being cup-tied or not.
Knowing they did not have Hugill as a targetman, North End chose another way to get the ball forward. Robinson played up front, Bodin to the right of him and Horgan to the left – cutting in on to their stronger foot.
Behind them, Harrop was instrumental as the No.10. Fittingly for the game’s best player, he opened and closed the scoring.
His free-kick was whipped into the top corner for the first, then he met a Greg Cunningham cross for the last of the five with a fine header.
In between, Alan Browne bagged two and Horgan got on the scoresheet.
You could pick between Harrop’s pair and Browne’s first for the best of the goals.
From a technique point of view, Browne’s shot from 20 yards was a pearler, while the move, cross and finish for the fifth from Harrop was a joy to watch.
Bigger tests will come in the Championship but hopefully Preston can take plenty from this.
It was a good response to the defeat to Middlesbrough and a useful build-up to the next test at Millwall.
All season, we had banged on about PNE not scoring in the first quarter-of-an-hour of games. Having finally squeezed in a 14th-minute goal against Boro, they took things to the extreme by netting less than two minutes in on Saturday.
Horgan was tripped 25 yards from goal to earn the visitors a free-kick.
Bodin and Harrop stood over it, the angle seeming to favour a left-foot attempt from the new boy.
But it was HARROP who curled it into the top corner, beating the keeper all ends up.
Much of North End’s play was channelled through him as they pressed for a second.
That subsequently came in the 38th minute, before which Harrop and Robinson had both gone close.
Horgan set the ball rolling with a driving run inside from the left channel.
His low cross was cleared out of the six-yard box by Joe Jacobson as Bodin looked to get on the end of it.
It fell to BROWNE on the edge of the ‘D’ who let the ball bounce before hammering it first-time into the top corner.
Some slack defending saw Wycombe cut the arrears on the stroke of half-time, Welsh’s clearance falling to Nick Freeman in the box, who found Luke O’Nien.
From a tight angle to the right of goal, O’NIEN hit a shot which clipped off Horgan and flew over Declan Rudd.
Normal service was to be restored five minutes into the second half. HORGAN tricked his way into the box from the left, his low shot hitting half-time sub Will De Havilland and flying into the net.
North End got their fourth in the 78th minute, Dan Scarr’s tug on Paul Hunington’s shirt as they competed to meet a Harrop corner spotted by ref Peter Bankes stood close by.
BROWNE swept the spot-kick into the roof of the net over keeper Scott Brown who had gone the right way.
In terms of a build-up and move, Neil’s men saved their best to last five minutes from time. Cunningham exchanged passes with Horgan to take him into the Wycombe half before speeding down the left channel.
He hit a fine cross on the run, one which HARROP met without breaking stride and headed in from eight yards.
North End go into the hat, or rather the plastic tub, for the fourth- round draw for the first time since 2015.
This was a job well done and a very enjoyable one.