Bolton Wanderers 1-2 Preston North End: Dave Seddon's verdict as Lilywhites march on with impressive derby win
Alex Neil donned a bowler hat to celebrate Preston’s win at Bolton last season, this time a smile and a spot of humour sufficed.
The Lilywhites manager got Alan Browne to wrap-up his post-match interview with a ‘come on Baluga’ instruction so that he could have his turn speaking to the media.
Neil professed to never having been in the city-centre watering hole which Preston fans sing about in homage of midfielder Browne.
But even he might have been tempted in for a tipple to celebrate a third away win on the bounce, one which the close scoreline did not do full justice to.
“I’ve only heard of Baluga from them singing about it,” said Neil with a nod of the head in the direction of the empty away stand which half an hour earlier had been packed with 4,565 travelling Prestonians.
Those fans had seen their side outplay hosts Bolton for long parts of the contest and rack-up enough chances to have won two games.
This should have been a win in similar style to the 4-1 victory at QPR three weeks earlier.
They had to make do with 2-1, Browne firing PNE ahead late in the first half with Tom Barkhuizen netting a second goal seven minutes from time.
Clayton Donaldson’s late goal briefly gave Wanderers hope of an unlikely salvage operation.
However, it was but brief hope as Neil’s men closed the game out and left Horwich with victory for the third visit running.
In 2016 and 2018, Preston had come from a goal down to win 2-1 and 3-1 respectively.
Perhaps mindful of that history, Bolton chose to swap ends at kick-off to make PNE attack the end where their fans were massed in the first half rather than in the second.
That made little difference to the visitors, Browne netting at that end and able to share his joy with them.
It meant the away fans had to make do with a long-range view of Barkhuizen’s second, with Tommy B – to use Neil’s name for him – having only the corner flag and team-mates to celebrate with at the far end.
This was a fifth game unbeaten for North End and again Neil was to repeat himself with some of his post-match comments.
During the dip in results over Christmas and new year Neil had stated that when he had a fuller squad to select from, the goods would start to be delivered.
“When you aren’t winning, people don’t want to hear your excuses, they think you are talking rubbish,” said Neil.
At one stage there was a full team’s worth of players queuing to see the physio.
Neil now has a settled side and the results are there for all to see.
He tweaked the team ever so slightly on Saturday to bring Barkhuizen in at Jayden Stockley’s expense.
It wasn’t so much a case of Stockley being dropped, more wanting a different approach up front.
Instead of involving the Bolton defence in an aerial battle, Neil wanted to stretch them on the ground.
Hence a return on the wing for Barkhuizen, that allowing Sean Maguire to lead PNE’s attack.
It worked well in that gaps were found and exploited at regular intervals.
Had the finishing matched the approach play, victory would have been by a greater margin.
North End were far better than Bolton all over the pitch, noisier too off it.
They had more possession, more shots, more corners than their hosts.
Simply they had far more belief than the home side who face a huge task to stay in the division.
Although possession in not always king, a 60% share away from home is very decent to say the least.
At one stage during the first half it was running at 66% as Preston bossed play.
Bolton seemed content to let them have the ball coming out from the back, only when it got into midfield did some kind of competition start.
It isn’t always a strength of Preston’s to carve open sides who sit deep.
The fact it took them until five minutes before half-time to break the deadlock in some ways justified the tactics of Trotters boss Phil Parkinson.
But generally when North End go in front, they tend to go on and get something from the game – doing so in quite a controlled way here.
In the second half they were happy to play on the break, Barkhuizen finding the net in such a manner.
At the base of much of what PNE did was Ben Pearson in a deep-sitting midfield role.
His comfort on the ball and ability to make the simple pass was key, with play built through him.
In front of him, Browne was impressive, as was Brad Potts who has similar traits to the Irishman.
Maguire buzzed around in the search of space to play in, more often than not finding it.
The pace of Barkhuizen was an outlet on the right side of the pitch, Paul Gallagher’s comfort on the ball likewise on the left.
In terms of chances, it was actually Bolton who had the first couple – both from Josh Magennis in the opening six minutes.
But it was all Preston after that, the breakthrough made in the 40th minute
Receiving the ball on the right from Gallagher’s pass, Barkhuizen played a give-and-go with Browne and sped into the box.
His cut back found the run of Browne who didn’t break stride before firing low into the far corner.
Maguire’s shot soon after caught the foot of goalkeeper Remi Matthews sufficiently to take it into the side-netting.
Another Matthews touch took a Potts shot against the post in the second half.
The lead was extended in the 83rd minute, Ben Davies’ long ball intercepted by Marc Wilson.
But his attempted pass to Jason Lowe was cut out by Maguire, the striker’s through ball sending Barkhuizen away.
He took a touch to control it before rolling a shot beyond Matthews.
Donaldson prodded home a consolation, although it might have proved more had Declan Rudd not tipped a Magennis header over the bar two minutes into injury-time.