Preston North End started 2016 on a high as a dramatic second-half fight-back and an injury time own goal gave Simon Grayson’s men a 2-1 victory over Rotherham United.
It was a dreary first half showing from North End under a miserable back drop of a grim, grey sky above Deepdale.
Rotherham took a deserved lead in the 36th minute as Tony Andreu leapt above Bailey Wright and directed Danny Ward’s cross into the bottom corner.
But it was a tale of two halves as some inspired substitutions fuelled a fine North End comeback.
Paul Huntington replaced Wright at the interval and it was the centre back who latched on to Paul Gallagher’s free-kick and steered the ball into the path of Eoin Doyle to tap home.
North End’s second-half revival was sealed by an own goal as Marnick Vermijl’s long throw was diverted past Lee Camp by Jonson Clarke-Harris.
The victory was North End’s second consecutive win and the Lilywhites have climbed up to 15th in the Championship table.
Grayson was forced to make two changes to the side that beat Hull City 1-0 on Monday due to the departures of Jordan Pickford and Will Keane.
Pickford was recalled from his season long loan spell by parent club Sunderland on January 1 and Manchester United also exercised the option to recall striker Keane from his season long loan spell.
But as one door closes another opens and Pickford’s exit paved the way for Sam Johnstone to return to Deepdale.
The Manchester United youngster enjoyed a five month loan spell at Deepdale last year and was part of the side that sealed promotion to the Championship by beating Swindon Town 4-0 in the League One Play-off final in May.
The shot-stopper, from Leyland, has signed a 28-day emergency loan spell deal and he went straight into the starting XI.
Doyle was recalled to the starting line-up after Keane, who only found the net twice in a 22 game spell at North End, returned to Old Trafford.
Johnstone was called into action within minutes of his comeback game. Rotherham striker Danny Ward rounded him in the ninth minute but Bailey Wright slid in at the near post to make a last gasp clearance and clear the danger.
Johnson sliced through Rotherham’s defence with an inch perfect pass that unleashed Cunningham on the left wing. The defender thundered the ball into the box but Doyle was unable to get a clear touch due to the ferocity and speed of the cross and it bounced off his body and flew wide of the left post.
It was a quiet first half of little chances as both sides toiled under the grey sky at Deepdale.
Rotherham were the better side in the opening 30 minutes and it was the visitor’s who finally broke the deadlock in the 36th minute.
Ward raced down the left flank and fizzed the ball into the box. The on-running Andreu leapt above a static Wright to nod the ball into the bottom corner.
The goal woke North End up and within moments of the re-start Garner had carved out a chance in the opposition box. The striker wriggled his way to the right and finally released the trigger but his right-footed 12-yard effort crashed into a Rotherham defender and fizzed away from goal.
North End failed to test Lee Camp as the half drew to a close with Rotherham in the driving seat.
PNE boss Grayson made a substitution at the break as Wright - who played despite having a virus against Hull - made way for fellow centre back Paul Huntington.
Rotherham maintained their stranglehold on the game at the start of the second half.
The Millers had an opportunity to double their lead within minutes of the second 45 as Joe Mattock’s powerful strike from the right stung Johnstone’s palms as he dived low to his left.
Grayson introduced Alan Browne at the expense of John Welsh in the 52nd minute and the young Irishman helped turn the tide back in PNE’s favour.
North End fought back as Garner latched onto Gallagher’s pin-point cross from the left and nodded the ball towards goal but Rotherham left-back Mattock managed to scoop it off the line.
Garner loudly protested that the ball had crossed the line but linesman Richard Wootton and referee Charles Breakspear waved away his appeal in the 54th minute.
Adam Reach’s corner was met by Huntington and the defender’s fierce header was just tipped away by Camp who made a fine one-handed save to thwart the substitute.
Browne found himself in space with his back to goal six yards out but his effort on the turn was easily stopped by Camp.
Rotherham’s Danny Ward tested Johnstone with a curling effort from just outside the box but the Manchester United prodigy was up to the challenge and managed to tip the ball over with his left hand.
After an impressive 10 minute spell North End finally got their reward in the 64th minute as Doyle poked the ball home.
Gallagher’s set-piece was nodded across goal by Huntington and the predatory striker was alert in the six-yard box to steer the ball beyond Camp.
Doyle nearly capped his return to the starting XI with a brace as he threw himself through the air to connect with Cunningham’s cross from the left. The striker’s diving header was just stopped by Camp but he could not hold onto the ball and it rebounded into the path of Garner who fired straight at a Rotherham defender.
Doyle went down in the box under pressure from Kirk Broadfoot but the referee ignored the striker’s penalty appeal.
But PNE bagged all three points in the third minuted of the allotted added time as Vermijl’s long throw from the left was nodded over team mate Camp by second-half substitute Clarke-Harris.
PNE: Johnstone, Vermijl, Wright (Huntington, 46) Clarke, Cunningham, Johnson, Gallagher, Welsh (Browne, 52), Reach, Doyle (Hugill, 80), Garner. Subs not used: Kirkland, Kilkenny, Woods, Brownhill.
Rotherham: Camp, Mattock, Broadfoot, Fecklington (Green, 11), D Ward, G Ward, Rawson (Collins, 82), Newell, Andreu (Clarke-Harris, 58) Facey, Smallwood. Subs not used: Collin, Wood, Ledesma, Derbyshire.
Attendance: 12027 (1038 away)
Referee: C Breakspear (Surrey)