Rovers 2, PNE 2: Dave Seddon's big match verdict
Over the last few months, Paul Gallagher has been unable to make the impact he once did in a Preston North End shirt.
Injuries have restricted him to eight starts and two substitute appearances since mid November, with others taking over the mantle of chief playmaker.
However for 20 minutes at Ewood Park, against the club where he started his career, Gallagher was back to being the heartbeat of the North End team and was the inspiration behind their equaliser.
With this keenly-contested derby in its 93rd minute and the visitors trailing, the stage of hopeful balls being pumped into the Blackburn box had been reached.
Gallagher had different ideas when he got possession outside the penalty area, his pass down the right-hand side of the box effectively taking out three Rovers defenders.
There was still work to be done, skipper Tom Clarke’s composure in choosing to pass inside to Aiden McGeady and indeed McGeady’s calmness in picking his spot, laudable.
But Gallagher’s vision was key and PNE beginning to find a path back into the game could be traced to him coming on as their second change of the afternoon.
Having taken an early lead through Tom Barkhuizen, North End lost control of the game for 50 minutes.
For the last 20 minutes of the first half and half an hour of the second, they struggled to contain their hosts.
Having been pegged back and then falling behind, the three points were seemingly staying in East Lancashire.
Gallagher’s introduction in a reshuffled 3-5-2 helped give Preston a presence again in the midfield.
Not in a physical sense so much, more that someone wanted to get on the ball and give their play more pattern.
Rarely have I awarded the starman plaudit to a sub, one who was on for a relatively short time.
But Gallagher for me was the game-changer, turning the momentum in PNE’s favour.
How important could this point prove further down the road?
The two dropped may be costly, however the one gained was to bring the top-six that bit closer.
For North End to have reached to the last eight games of the season and be in play-off contention is decent going.
In the early weeks of the campaign they were bottom three material, losing six of the first eight.
Their climb up the table started in the autumn and has continued through winter and into the spring.
As Simon Grayson was to observe post-match,destiny now boils down to an ‘eight-game season’ in April and the first week of May.
In terms of the play-offs, they lost ground positional wide with Norwich going above them, but were to reduce the gap on stuttering sixth-placed Sheffield Wednesday.
With Fulham losing at home to Wolves, results did not go too badly.
The mantra at Preston is to focus on themselves and put to one side what others might be doing around them.
Any self evaluation which is done over the international break needs to involve a look at the away form.
With four games on the road to come – the next three being Leeds, Huddersfield and Newcastle – a win is needed somewhere down the line.
This was a seventh game on their travels without a win and while only two of those have been lost, North End could do with gathering more on their travels.
The early signs in the lunchtime rain at Ewood Park were promising in respect of bringing three points back down the M65.
Barkhuizen’s opener in the 13th minute was his fifth goal in four games.
He became the first PNE player to score four games in a row since Daniel Johnson did so two years ago.
Unfortunately, that early advantage could not be built on, hence why it needed the late cameo from Gallagher to deliver a share of the spoils.
Better late than never with the equaliser, three minutes into time added on and done so bang in front of the 6,005 travelling Prestonians.
It was the same starting XI which had seen off Reading the week before, Gallagher’s return on the bench instead of Stevie May the one change to the squad.
With both sides in a 4-4-2, it led to an open game which might at times have lacked a touch of quality but certainly no shortage of endeavour.
North End’s opener saw Clarke send over a cross from the right channel which was won in the air by Barkhuizen.
He headed down to Jordan Hugill who cushioned a pass back into his path.
BARKHUZIEN was away in the box and under pressure from a defender, got a shot away which goalkeeper Jason Steele got a touch to but could only divert into the roof of the net.
There were a couple of close calls for Preston before Rovers equalised, namely two Lucas Joao headers, the first of which went straight at Chris Maxwell and the second hit the post.
The home side’s leveller two minutes before half-time was a fine finish.
Elliott BENNETT got the ball 25 yards and with no one closing down, let fly with a right-foot shot which kept low and found the bottom corner.
Barkhuizen blazed a shot into the away end at the start of the second half following a good run from Daryl Horgan.
It was Rovers who got their noses in front in the 56th minute, Bennett not tracked as he came inside from the right before playing the ball up to Marvin Emnes.
There was room for Emnes to turn outside the box and play in Craig CONWAY who took a touch and swept a shot past the advancing Maxwell.
PNE got their act together after a switch to three at the back which afforded them an extra man in midfield.
The equaliser sparked pure joy in the away end, a header from Ben Pearson across the face of the box picked up by Barkhuizen.
He played it inside to find Gallagher who threaded a pass through the narrowest of gaps to find Clarke.
The captain squared it to McGEADY who took a touch and fired home from 10 yards.
RATINGS and STATS
Chris Maxwell 7
Steady performance between the posts, little chance with either goal. Handling was good from crosses.
Tom Clarke 7
Decent game at right-back, had a hand in both goals with his pass leading to McGeady’s late equaliser.
Paul Huntington 6
Had to work hard to keep track of Joao who stretched the centre of PNE’s defence. Had the ball in the net late on but was offside.
Andy Boyle 7
Another good game in his first taste of a Lancashire derby. But the Irishman was caught out for the second goal.
Greg Cunningham 7
He was his usual steady self at left-back, got up the pitch well in the later stages when pushed into a wing-back role.
Daryl Horgan 6
Not quite on his game, Had a couple of good runs at the start of each half but did not make much of an impact in between.
Ben Pearson 7
Strong performance in the centre of midfield from Pearson, did the defensive side of things well as PNE came under pressure.
Daniel Johnson 6
In line with his team-mates, DJ made a lively start but faded as the first-half went on. Needed to impose himself more.
Aiden McGeady 6
Endured a frustrating afternoon until he popped up in the 93rd minute to earn North End a point.
Tom Barkhuizen 7
Opened the scoring with his fifth goal in four games. Missed a good chance early in the second half but what a run he is on.
Jordan Hugill 6
Set up the first goal but generally was off colour, explained by the fact he only played after having an injection in his shoulder.
Callum Robinson 6
Joined the action in the 67th minute in place of Horgan went up front as North End shuffled to a 3-5-2 system.
Paul Gallagher 8
Only came on 15 minutes from time but was the game changer. Got on the ball well, dictated play and set up the equaliser.
Simon Makienok 7
Replaced Hugill in the 77th minute as North End went all out for an equaliser. Played his part in unsettling the Rovers defence.
subs not used
Alan Browne, Jermaine Beckford, Tommy Spurr, Anders Lindegaard.
Steele, Nyambie, Lenihan, Mulgrew, Williams, Bennett (Mahoney 75), Lowe, Guthrie, Conway (Feeney 79), Emnes (Gallagher 79), Joao. Subs (not used): Hoban, Akpan, Brown, Raya.
18,435 (6,005 PNE)