Reduced to 14 men after just 20 minutes, Preston Grasshoppers mounted a magnificent defensive effort to defy all Harrogate’s attempts to bludgeon them to defeat.
Hoppers had barely had sight of the ball – or the visitors’ half of the pitch – when prop Pete Altham was shown a red card for punching by referee Chris Bennett after the intervention of a touch judge.
Already 0-6 down to two short-range penalties by centre Lewis Minikin, Preston looked really up against it. But they battled back brilliantly to level the scores by half-time and then claim the only six points of a torrid second half.
Head coach Garth Dew, who led the defensive effort by superb example from No 8, said: “That was probably our best win of the last couple of years. The red card affected us and we lost our heads a little bit.
“But we said at half-time, ‘Let’s relax and we can grind it out’. We played it perfectly – we slowed the game down and frustrated them. Everyone, from one to 20, put their bodies on the line.
“The red card galvanised the lads. We used the anger and frustration to our advantage, and the pack did really well.”
But the whole side stood tall in challenging circumstances, with the backs doing just as well as the forwards in the unstinting defensive effort. Forced to take off winger Charles Hough so that Dan Madden could replace Altham in the front row, Hoppers’ remaining six backs covered the extra space magnificently, with winger Scott Jordan especially earning his coach’s praise for the amount of ground he patrolled in defence.
On a heavy pitch, Hoppers had started in lacklustre fashion, apart from a dash down the line by Jordan after full-back Sean Taylor had picked off a clearance kick. Minikin’s penalties after four and 10 minutes kept them on the back foot, but when they did venture into opposition territory, the nerveless Taylor struck twice in first-half stoppage time, both kicks from over 35 metres, to tie the scores.
Harrogate made a strange start to the second half, fly-half Callum Irvine twice attempting drop goals from close to halfway inside the first 90 seconds, which perhaps suggested that they were not too confident in backing themselves to create good scoring opportunities.
Hoppers had a little more of the play after the break, but break-outs were few and far between, and meanwhile, Harrogate were squandering chances in profligate style.
They got over the line after taking a scrum against the head, but were penalised. They were also held up on the line a couple of times, messed up an attempted pushover try through losing the ball and wasted more than one overlap.
And, after Taylor had marked his 150th first-team appearance with two more penalties on 50 and 70 minutes, Harrogate expended an enormous amount of energy in the closing minutes trying to batter their way through a well-drilled Preston defence, when tiring bodies must have made the wide ball a better option.
All credit to the home side, though. They had to tackle like demons and did just that for an epic victory. As Dew admitted, it wasn’t pretty.
But it was mightily effective.