Preston North End (Hume) 1 – 2 Leeds United (Kilkenny, Paynter)

Goals from Neil Kilkenny and Billy Paynter gave Leeds United their first Tuesday night league victory of the season as they won 2-1 at Deepdale.

The vital three points puts Leeds United within one win of the automatic promotion spots as everyone in the top six bar newly promoted Leeds and Norwich City dropped points.

The contrast from the 4-6 freak result at Elland Road earlier this season couldn’t have been greater. Since then, Darren Ferguson has been relieved of his duties at Deepdale and replaced by Phil Brown, and the former Hull City manager’s style was clear to see in Preston’s approach. Gone is the all-out-attack and shambolic defending we saw from Preston some months back, and in it’s place comes the scrappy, tightly contested football that helped make Brown a household name (in Hull at least).

The opening exchanges were quick and reciprocal as both teams had opportunities to open the scoring. Preston were frustrated by the brilliant Kasper Schmeichel, who tipped an absolute screamer from Treacy onto the bar, whilst Leeds’ chances lacked accuracy and caused Schmeichel’s opposite number few problems.

In a game where accuracy and shooting ability could make all the difference, the last person you want hitting shots from long range is Neil Kilkenny. But strike one he did, and the result was one for the Australian’s scrapbook. A rare goal and an absolute stunner to boot put Leeds United in the lead, much to the delight of the 5,000 traveling fans – many of whom (myself included) had spent the drive to Deepdale questioning his contribution to our midfield.

It’s all so typical of players that come under scrutiny for them to miraculously start performing. Max Gradel’s greed, stupidity and showboating gave way to one of the most gifted talents in our team. Bradley Johnson’s belief that he was Peter Lorimer finally gave way to a defensive minded player who gets stuck in and helps the team defensively, rather than a player who blasts shots from 60 yards and wastes chances. I sincerely doubt Kilkenny can undergo a similar transformation and instantly learn how to defend, attack and tackle, but stranger things have happened. A trained chimp was twice elected President of the United States after all.

Preston’s confidence took a hit and Leeds began to dominate as Billy Paynter and Jonny Howson both went close before the break.

North End returned with the fighting spirit that had made the game such an evenly contested one in the first half and were denied an equaliser less than ten minutes in by the offside flag. A lucky escape for Leeds, but one that seemed to spark them back into life.

For a Leeds United side that seem to pride themselves on doing things the hard way, a second goal seemed unfeasible. Unlikelier still, was that Billy Paynter would get it, considering the sheer amount of bad luck he’s had since joining Leeds United. Picking up the ball at the edge of the area, Billy had only one thing in mind as the apparent ‘lack of confidence’ he’s been suffering dissipated, allowing him to finish beautifully and extend Leeds’ lead.

The away end exploded with volume as a relieved Billy Paynter finally got to celebrate in front of the Leeds United fans who had been urging him on throughout the game.

Unsatisfied with a comfortable, easy(ish) night’s work, Leeds United quickly reverted to type. Preston pulled one back with a long range strike from Hume, before the Leeds fans topped up on blood pressure tablets and the squad set about making things as uncomfortable as humanly possible.

From the moment Preston scored, there was a sense Leeds United were going to blow it (again) and the thirty odd minutes that followed seemed to take an eternity as Preston threw everything at Leeds’ goal to try and rescue a point (or beat us 6-2 as their fans amusing claimed they would).

Billy Paynter was denied his second of the night as the post thwarted his final attempt, before Luciano Becchio came on as his replacement. Barry Bannan and Richard Naylor followed, as Simon Grayson showed he doesn’t just do attacking substitutions, but also knows how to sure up a defence when needed – not often we’ve seen that this season.

The uncomfortable viewing finally came to an end after a few headed clearances from Andy O’Brien and Richard Naylor, an Argentinian striker showing the centre-backs how it’s done, Max Gradel proving once and for all that he has absolutely no idea how to run the clock down and four excruciating minutes of stoppage time.

Onwards and upwards?

A tricky one to sum up really, as Preston aren’t the team many people would expect given their current league position. Phil Brown really has them battling hard, and they look an awful lot better than a handful of teams I’ve seen this season (Scunthorpe and Doncaster being two recent examples, and Preston the first time around – strange, I know – being another). In many ways, this was the kind of game we seemed to be able to grind out last season as we stuttered our way into the Championship.

Overall, an excellent result regardless of how difficult it was to witness at times. The top six continues to tighten as our rivals drop points, meaning we now sit an almost unbelievable three points away from an automatic Premier League spot. You almost feel like whispering it, just in case someone overhears us and docks us 15 points…

Evident by the songs of “we’re going up, you’re going down” (bit harsh I felt given our recent troubles, but nevertheless inevitable on Preston’s part) and “na na na… Leeds are going up…” the last two games have got Leeds United fans truly believing the previously unthinkable is once again possible. It’s a funny old game, but I for one, wouldn’t like to call who will finish second.

“To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream;
not only plan, but also believe.” (Anatole France)