Dave Seddon's match verdict: Preston North End 3 Wigan Athletic 0 - bold selection pays off for PNE at Deepdale
This was not a must-win game which has been suggested by some of the Preston North End faithful but it certainly fell into the ‘much needed’ category.
PNE saw off Wigan Athletic with some comfort at Deepdale, a first win and clean sheet in competitive action since the middle of April.
It came at the end of a week in which disappointment had been the dominant mood.
Disappointment at the defeat to Millwall on the opening day, disappointment among many fans over a quiet end to the transfer window.
The Millwall loss will soon be forgotten, whether their transfer activity is might be another matter.
But on Saturday afternoon it was smiles in the rain for 90 minutes as North End put in a powerful performance to see off Wigan, victory one which was thoroughly deserved.
The visitors had bounded buoyantly up the M6 on the back of a first-day victory over Cardiff City and intent on avenging a 4-0 defeat here last October.
Defeat this time was only by one goal less, the away end starting to empty and their flags folded-up when Paul Gallagher found the net with a superb third goal early in the second half.
That wonderful finish from Gallagher followed first-half headers from Sean Maguire and Louis Moult which had put PNE in command.
Seeing Moult’s name on the scoresheet might have been a surprise bearing in mind he hadn’t started a game since December 22.
His inclusion from the start in this game was part of a ‘bold’ selection from Alex Neil as he looked for a reaction to the Millwall loss.
Neil swung the axe on four big names and implemented a couple of positional changes.
Moult being given the job of leading the line saw Maguire step sideways to the left-wing. Back came Billy Bodin on the right and Daniel Johnson given the No.10 role.
Down to the bench went Alan Browne, Brad Potts, Tom Clarke and Tom Barkhuizen.
The team sheet’s release raised eyebrows it has to be said, particularly Moult and Johnson’s inclusions.
Conceivably both players could have been playing their football elsewhere had things played out differently in the latter stages of the window.
Wigan had asked about taking Johnson on loan but got a firm ‘no’ from Preston. Had they made a cash bid, the answer might have been more favourable.
Moult had loan suitors and had sat out a midweek bounce game thinking he could be off before the window shut.
They both ended-up key to this victory, Moult leading the attack ever so well, with his occupation of the visitors’ centre-backs drawing team-mates into the game.
Johnson sat behind Moult in the role usually occupied by Browne and certainly took his chance with an impressive display.
Maguire’s shift to the wing meant he could get on the ball without having to battle with Wigan’s middle two Cedric Kipre and Daniel Fox.
It had been an unfair fight for Maguire at Millwall up against two big defenders and he made a much greater impact this time.
Bodin on the other side of the pitch to Maguire, had the look of a man wanting to make up for lost time and his lengthy injury absence.
Several times he found room behind Wigan’s back line to cause them problems.
The fourth change was the inclusion of Darnell Fisher in place of Tom Clarke, that more of a round peg in a round hole.
“I was quite bold with the four changes,” said Neil.
“I dropped four guys who have done very well for me. At the end of the day if I think it is the right thing I will do it.”
The changes gave North End a fresh look and certainly more of a creative edge. Their play and passing was crisper than it had been the week before.
Whereas at Millwall they had hogged possession but hit a brick wall, here Preston found the gaps and linked-up well going forward.
They actually had slightly less of the ball than Wigan did but with their 49% share did so much more than the visitors.
Just as important as PNE’s forward guile was the solidity of goalkeeper Declan Rudd.
He produced five saves in the game, two of them in quick succession in the first half of top quality.
Preston only had a 1-0 lead when he flung himself through the air to tip over a Josh Windass drive. Then Rudd got down low to glove Lewis MacLeod’s curler round the post.
Neil’s men had found the net early to settle themselves down and ease any nerves.
Ben Pearson’s piledriver from 25 yards struck former PNE striker Joe Garner on the side of the head and went for a corner.
Garner wanted to carry on but was told to go to the side of the pitch by the referee under head injury protocol.
Gallagher’s corner from the left found Maguire who got in front of his man at the near post and guided a header across goal into the net from five yards.
Although Garner came back on after the goal, he was substituted in the 26th minute and replaced by Kieffer Moore.
Aside from the two saves made by Rudd, PNE bossed the first half.
Chances came and went, one fine piece of play seeing Gallagher drop a delightful ball over the Wigan back line to release Bodin.
His cross was heading to Moult until goalkeeper David Marshall just got enough of his glove on the ball to take it away from Moult.
Wigan weren’t so fortunate six minutes before the break when PNE got their second.
Johnson took a pass from Maguire on the left-wing and was afforded the time to send over a cross which Moult was able to meet unattended with a header from 10 yards.
The third goal in the 54th minute was the best of the lot, Maguire winning a free-kick just outside the left corner of the box.
Gallagher tapped the ball a yard to Johnson who trapped it under his foot, Gallagher curling a fine right-foot shot into the top far corner.
PNE are up-and-running, now to keep that going. There will be sterner tests ahead but this one was very satisfying indeed.