Dave Seddon's verdict: Preston North End 2 Luton Town 1 - A hard watch but PNE get there in the end
Perhaps Jayden Stockley was destined to score Preston’s winner from the moment he came off the bench to face Luton, one of a number of clubs he played for on loan.
The striker was greeted with a chant of ‘Luton reject’ from a few of the travelling Hatters supporters in the Bill Shankly Kop.
A bit harsh it would seem, Stockley having a half-season loan spell there in 2015 when he was trying to find his way in the game.
Hardly a reject, he scored three times in 11 starts and returned to Bournemouth, then his parent club.
Stockley was North End’s last throw of the dice in terms of changes from the bench to try and find a way through Luton’s resolute defence.
Attempting to play through them hadn’t worked, the big striker put on for his aerial prowess as PNE looked to go wide and sling crosses into the box.
As it was, Stockley showed an air of calm with the ball at his feet to slot home an 84th minute winner.
Whether he was bothered about the earlier chant from the away end or had even heard it, is not clear.
What was clear though, was his delight – and that of the Deepdale faithful – as he executed a perfect knee slide to celebrate netting his second goal of the campaign.
Whether it was a deserved victory or not, the Lilywhites were the only side trying to win the game for large parts.
They weren’t on song as an attacking unit, frustrated by Luton who set up 4-5-1 to try and halt a run of six away defeats on the bounce.
Graeme Jones’ men were not far off achieving their goal but ultimately left Lancashire suffering a seventh straight loss on the road.
The contest suffered as a spectacle with the visitors doing everything in their power to take any hint of flow out of the game.
It is their right to try and do that, and let’s remember that North End are no strangers to taking the sting out of away games to achieve their needs.
However, Luton took things up another notch and it wasn’t great to watch.
Preston beat Fulham by the same scoreline last Tuesday night but what a contrast in the two games.
Victory over the Cottagers was a contest you couldn’t take your eyes off, Saturday’s match was a battle of attrition.
North End had made the perfect start by scoring inside the opening five minutes.
But allowing Luton to pull level just before half-time led to a second-half where in the main the home side hit the proverbial brick wall.
There came a four-minute spell though, when things went their way at both ends of the pitch to swing the result in their favour.
In a rare Luton attack, substitute Harry Cornick got clean through but was denied by a fine save from Declan Rudd.
For good measure, the PNE keeper tipped over Kazenga Lualua’s follow-up.
Soon after came Stockley’s big moment which secured three points and meant the players headed for their Christmas party on a high note.
This win would fall nicely into the ‘got the job done and move on’ category.
After four defeats on the bounce, North End are in recovery and starting to look in good health once more.
The Fulham win got them back on course and beating Luton pushed them up into third place in the table.
How fortunes have swung back and forth of late. It is only three weeks since they went to Derby and saw a run of three wins ended by a loss.
That grew into four defeats on the trot, the fourth of those just last Saturday at Queens Park Rangers.
Now they are back up to third on the back of successive home wins. The next challenge is try and negotiate back-to-back away games at Cardiff and Leeds.
It’s no coincidence that a shortening injury list has run in tandem with the two wins.
PNE got Paul Gallagher and Darnell Fisher back for this game, Andrew Hughes, Patrick Bauer and Tom Clarke having returned over the last week or so.
However, they now lose Fisher again to suspension after the right-back collected a 10th yellow card.
It is ridiculous that Fisher is in double figures of cautions from just 16 appearances.
He appeared to get himself in a row with the Luton bench during the second half and that led to him being booked.
Joe Rafferty has two games to go of his three-match ban, so that’s another selection issue for Alex Neil.
For Saturday’s contest, Neil used Fisher as a straight replacement for Rafferty.
Gallagher came back in next to Ben Pearson, with Neil going for two deeper midfielders to build play rather than use two ‘running 10s’ as he had done in the QPR and Fulham games.
The returning Gallagher made an early impact as he found the net.
When he arrowed a corner over to the far post, Patrick Bauer moved to meet it but was stopped by Matty Pearson grabbing a handful of his shirt.
Referee Gavin Ward felt it sufficient contact to award a penalty. Gallagher took it, Town keeper James Shea managing to change direction to parry it.
Gallagher had followed it in though, getting to the rebound just before Shea to knock it into the net from five yards.
Scoring first never does PNE any harm as a rule but they failed to push on and stamp their authority.
Mind you, Billy Bodin’s header from a Hughes cross was on its way in until Luton centre-half Pearson hooked it off the line and over the bar as Alan Browne closed in.
Luton levelled through James Collins from the spot, Paul Huntington harshly adjudged to have clipped Callum McManaman in the 43rd minute. Harsh in the sense that there didn't appear to be any contact between the two.
Cue a disjointed and very frustrating second half as the visitors dropped deep.
Josh Harrop, Tom Barkhuizen and then Stockley joined the action as Neil rejigged the front line more than once
A winner was to arrive though, Fisher’s cross turned back across the box by Sean Maguire.
Gallagher and Harrop had shots blocked in the goalmouth, before the ball broke to Stockley who coolly controlled and side-footed in from six yards.