Preston 3 Sheffield Wednesday 3 - Dave Seddon's verdict on an exciting Deepdale finale
Deepdale’s season finale was a proper thriller but without the finish Preston North End wanted.
This was no flip-flops and beach towel contest which you can get as the campaign draws to a close, far from it in fact.
North End and Sheffield Wednesday shared six goals, peppered one another’s boxes, while Owls defender Dominic Iorfa allowed his end-of-term commitment to go too far with a rash tackle on Darnell Fisher which earned a red card.
Twice Alex Neil’s men held two-goal advantages, with the surrender of the second of those allowing the visitors to snatch a draw.
They might argue such a spirited comeback merited them sharing the spoils but in truth PNE should never have let them back in.
Two headers scored two minutes apart proved their undoing, the hosts unable to cope with Wednesday turning their front line into land of the giants as Atdhe Nuhiu and Lucas Joao came off the bench
In many ways the outcome reflected their push for the play-offs which had floundered in recent weeks – Preston got close but could not get over the line.
Last month they reached a season’s high seventh place, level on points with sixth, only to fall away.
On Saturday, it was a case of being 3-1 to the good and just needing to see the job through, something those two headers in quick succession stopped them doing.
That said, to be too critical of them would be a touch harsh when for three-quarters of this game they were very good.
The first-half display was as good as they had served-up for a good while.
Using Jayden Stockley as a targetman and focal point, North End buzzed around him and moved the ball well.
Their 2-0 half-time lead given to them by Stockley and a Tom Lees own goal, was one well deserved.
Barry Bannan, the Owls’ star act, fired them back into the game after the break.
When Alan Browne netted the third goal though, victory for the home side looked the only outcome.
Back came Wednesday, no doubt in the hope of avoiding a repeat of the blast Steve Bruce had delivered their way over the half-time tea.
It was so loud, Neil had heard it down the corridor in the Preston dressing room.
So for a 10th time at Deepdale this season, PNE shared the points with their visitors.
Winning only eight home matches out of 23 is the main reason why have fallen short of the play-offs.
Eight away victories, six of them secured in a row, was pretty good going.
But the sides higher up the table can all boast stronger home records.
The top six sides are in double figures of victories in front of their home faithful, something to bear in mind for next season.
There was plenty to take from this game for the Lilywhites to carry into the 2019/20 campaign.
Stockley’s display offered plenty of encouragement, not just because he scored for the first time at Deepdale but by the way he led the line and used his head – literally – to such good effect.
There were times when the January buy from Exeter was passing the ball with his head – not just hopeful flick-ons but a purposeful finding of team-mates.
He was certainly one of the PNE players deserving of a win bonus rather than having to mull over a draw.
Browne played off him well in the No.10 position until an injury forced him off a couple of minutes before Wednesday began their comeback.
Another to stand out was Daniel Johnson in a deeper role behind Browne.
He’s had his critics at times this season but you could not fault this performance.
The midfield was missing Ben Pearson and Ryan Ledson who in between suspensions, have filled the holding role this season.
It was Johnson and Paul Gallagher in the middle here in a 4-2-3-1 system, Johnson providing the bite.
Twice in the latter stages, on opposite sides of the pitch, we saw Johnson charge back to make recovery tackles as Wednesday broke.
He got on the ball well, his passing more accurate than it perhaps has been of late.
At the other end of the pitch, keeper Connor Ripley was the 10th player to be given a Championship debut by North End this season.
Having recovered from an injury ligament injury, Neil felt the time was right to have a first look at the January buy.
Ripley made good saves in the first half from Bannan and Steven Fletcher.
Whether he might have ventured from his line to take the cross for the third goal, is something to debate.
Although having to scoop the ball out of his net three times, it was a strong bow.
An early goal had set the ball rolling against Ipswich to good effect on Good Friday and PNE were quickly out of the blocks again in this one.
Gallagher swept a ninth minute free-kick out to the left-wing to Callum Robinson.
His inswinging cross was helped on by Browne in the air, Stockley getting ahead of his marker to powerfully head home from five yards.
The lead was doubled in the 36th minute, Stockley being dragged to the floor as he tried to bring down a cross field ball deemed legal by the referee.
The ball travelled on to Joe Rafferty who sped into the box and crossed to the near post.
It hit Michael Hector and spun into the air, skipper Tom Lees looping a header into his own net as he tried to clear.
Bannan’s left-foot drive from just inside the box after being found by Marco Matias' back heel, was the goal of the game just after the interval.
The two-goal cushion was restored in the 62nd minute, Ripley launching a free-kick down the right channel which Stockley headed inside.
Sean Maguire in turn flicked it further in field, Robinson dummied and that allowed Browne to break past the last defender into the box and fire home.
It was game on when the Owls made it 3-2 in the 76th minute, Nuhiu’s cross flicking off Fisher’s head and finding Fernando Forestieri who headed home.
Nuhui then got the better of Davies to meet Bannan’s cross from the left and head home at the far post.
Iorfa’s lunge at Fisher saw him dismissed, a tackle out of step with the rest of the game which had been competitive but without malice.