Sheffield United 1 PNE 0: Dave Seddon's big match verdict
This tie was the last out of the hat when the FA Cup draw was made and the game had a feel of last pick in the playground about it.
At its worst the fourth round clash at Bramall Lane was terrible, at its best it was just about lukewarm.
For much of the afternoon, Preston and Sheffield United cancelled one another out.
Chances were very much at a premium, the goal which settled the contest in favour of the Blades coming courtesy of a debatable penalty.
That was only their second shot on target, slightly better than North End who had to wait until the first minute of stoppage-time for their single effort on goal.
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Both sides seemingly had one eye on Tuesday night when they return to the bread and butter of league action.
Alex Neil chose to make eight changes to the Preston side, his Blades counterpart Chris Wilder seven.
Little surprise then that the game was a slow-burner and only properly got going in the final stages.
While United go into the plastic tub for Monday night’s televised fifth round draw, it is Emmerdale on the box for North End.
You could argue the case of them deserving a replay at Deepdale on the basis of the hosts being no better than them on the day.
The sides had a half each, PNE having more control of the first half with Wilder’s men better in the second.
United just carried that bit more threat when on top than the visitors had.
Hence they marched on in the competition while North End’s involvement is over for another year.
Three years ago they beat the Blades in a replay to reach the fifth round, a rare visit in recent times to that stage of the competition.
Their concentration this season is now solely focused on the Championship, with a trip to Nottingham Forest next up on Tuesday.
North End’s performance in South Yorkshire wasn’t without effort or endeavour.
They worked hard, as did the home side, however the display lacked spark and was crying out for some creativity.
In terms of a handle on the midfield, there was a firmer hand than there had been against Birmingham the week before.
Moving forward though, the front line seemed a touch isolated.
Louis Moult got precious little service on his full debut, some company later on in the shape of Jordan Hugill being most welcome.
Billy Bodin showed a bit of what he’s about, the recent buy from Bristol Rovers the liveliest of Preston’s attackers.
It seems that of late, a bit of devilment has gone from their play.
That was there in the last round at Wycombe and for the first half against Middlesbrough the game before.
But either side of those two games, they’ve not quite hit the straps going forward.
Think back to last month against Forest and Barnsley.
You can’t put the Cardiff game into that category, the late 1-0 victory there coming after a good game plan was well executed.
Recently, it took North End time to get going at Millwall and then there was the lightweight display against Birmingham.
They continue to look safe enough at the back so the aim must be to find their mojo again going forward.
Saturday’s exit from the cup meant disappointment for the 2,659-strong Preston support which had ventured over the Pennines.
The reduced ticket prices and cut-price travel offer went down a treat and ensured a far bigger away following than might have made the trip in normal circumstances.
Although Neil made eight changes to the starting XI, the squad rotation was not quite as dramatic as it might have appeared.
Darnell Fisher was one of the returnees, back after five weeks out with a hip injury.
I thought Fisher looked strong in the right-back role and provided the defence with a good balance.
The fact he was subbed for the last for the last 20 minutes or so was an indicator that he start at Forest.
Having played in the last round, Declan Rudd came back in while Moult got his first start.
There was another start for Bodin after being left on the bench the week before, with Josh Earl, John Welsh, Alan Browne and Daryl Horgan drafted in.
Preston’s bench could be described as ‘loaded’ with six first-team regulars on it as well as Tommy Spurr making a return from knee surgery.
The PNE players wore black armbands as a mark of respect to Jimmy Armfield who passed away last week.
In the first half, they saw plenty of the ball although had only a couple of efforts which went well wide to show for it.
At times they tried to find Moult in a similar way to how Hugill is brought into the game and that didn’t bring much joy.
Quiet in the first half, the Blades had more purpose about them in the second.
It needed a fine save from Rudd seven minutes into the second period to prevent the deadlock being broken.
Mark Duffy, comfortably the game’s best player, put over a cross from the right which Daniel Lafferty met on the half-volley from 10 yards.
Rudd sprung up to tip the shot over the bar and give a timely reminder of his form when on loan in 2013 and 2014.
As the second half went on Neil changed personnel with Tom Barkhuizen replacing Horgan, then Calum Woods and Hugill came on for Fisher and Welsh.
Daniel Johnson’s curling shot from 20 yards in the 78th minute travelled just wide but within a couple of minutes North End had fallen behind.
Billy Sharp got ahead of Tom Clarke as a high ball came into the PNE box.
Sharp was going away from goal, Clarke went to challenge and down went the striker.
It was on the soft side but you’ve seen them given, ref Graham Scott pointing to the spot with little hesitation.
SHARP hammered home the penalty, that prompting a late North End rally in which Browne went close and then a volley from Hugill after good work from Moult was saved by the keeper.