WALSALL, THE team built on a shoestring and a prayer, may need some of the latter before the season is out. Had they won at Deepdale last night they would have been within five points of automatic promotion to the First Division, instead they have squandered one of their games in hand.
A second-half goal from Sean Gregan was warmly received by Preston, who have also done their chances of grabbing the runners-up spot no harm, but the loudest cheers will have come from 35 miles down the M61 at Maine Road. A resurgent Manchester City are now breathing down Walsall's necks and have only played one game more.
It was a frustrating outcome for Walsall, who have been constructed by their manager, Ray Graydon, with seven free transfers and pounds 30,000. Not only did they lose, a result which, incidentally, confirmed Fulham as champions of the Second Division, but a thin squad for the run-in was made leaner with Jason Brissett being sent off for raising a hand at Graham Alexander.
A bad night for the Saddlers then, but one they could hardly complain about because Preston were comprehensively the better side. And that was a bit of a mystery when you consider that the home team approached the match with a run of only two points from a possible 15, but they grabbed control right from the start. Indeed, but for the Walsall goalkeeper, James Walker, they could have been 3-0 up and counting their winning bonus in the first 15 minutes.
After 50 seconds he saved a vicious drive from Michael Appleton and recovered to palm Jonathan Macken's follow-up header on to the bar. Five minutes later he adjusted his position to block a Jason Harris half volley and when the goalkeeper was beaten, Harris's header sailed narrowly wide.
Walsall were buckling but slowly they diverted the tide heading towards them and, with Darren Wrack slicing through Preston's left flank, they gained a strong foothold if not complete parity. Even so the volley that Nick Henry fired narrowly over in the 20th minute would become their best effort of the evening.
Preston were superior but the winner came when they must have been despairing of ever breaking the obdurate and disciplined ranks ahead of them. Michael Jackson launched a long free-kick into the area after 59 minutes and, as half a dozen players strained to get a touch, Gregan first had a header blocked then forced the ball over the line from close range.
"It was an alehouse brawl in the box," the Preston manager, David Moyes, said of the goal, but it is one that will be considered pretty enough in Manchester as well as Preston.
Preston North End (4-4-2): Lucas; Alexander, Murdock, Jackson, Ludden; McKenna, Appleton, Gregan, Eyres; Macken, Harris (Darby, 86). Substitutes not used: McGregor, Clement.
Walsall (4-4-2): Walker; Marsh (Larusson, 82), Roper, Viveash, Pointon; Wrack, Henry, Keates, Brissett; Steiner (Eyjolfsson, 58), Rammell. Substitute not used: Green.
Referee: T Heilbron (Newton Aycliffe).