Birmingham 3 Preston NE 1: Celebrity McSheffrey's show

Winger's hat-trick helps Bruce to celebrate his five years in charge
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Performances will need to be better than this one if Birmingham's expensively assembled squad are to return to the top flight in a manner that many of their supporters would like them to. Last night, there was little style or any real quality from the Championship leaders, but they still managed to overcome a spirited Preston North End, who topped the division themselves two weeks ago. A hat-trick from the winger Gary McSheffrey allowed Steve Bruce's men to extend their margin over their promotion rivals to three points.

"After the first 10 or 15 minutes, Preston could have been out of sight," said Bruce, who celebrates five years in charge at St Andrew's Stadium this week. "It was down to our individual errors - hundreds of them. The division for me is about who makes the least mistakes. We got away with it and got the win."

Birmingham had survived early scares before McSheffrey gave them an ill-deserved lead. The highly-rated striker David Nugent hit the post just over a minute into the game. Birmingham's defensive frailties were exposed again on 14 minutes as first Nugent and then the winger Simon Whaley found their way behind a nervy back-line. Hardly inspirational stuff from Birmingham.

But McSheffrey gave his side the lead on 32 minutes. Cameron Jerome created the opportunity, taking a pass from the full-back Matt Sadler in his path before turning his marker and laying the ball into the path of McSheffrey. The winger's low shot took a slight deflection off the defender Matt Hill and past Preston goalkeeper Carlo Nash.

Birmingham went further ahead seven minutes later. McSheffrey took Sadler's low ball, turned the defender Liam Chilvers and played the ball under Nash.

"McSheffrey is a fantastic acquisition," said Bruce, of the player he pursued for many weeks before Coventry City succumbed to a £4m offer in August. "He is everything I admire in a player: blood, guts and determination."

Moments before the break, however, Preston pulled a goal back. The Birmingham goalkeeper Maik Taylor failed to claim Paul McKenna's corner, allowing striker Brett Ormerod to score from close range.

After the break Birmingham wasted several opportunities to extend their lead. McSheffrey was guilty of one such miss when, 64 minutes in, the ball was pulled back from the touchline by Nicklas Bendtner but the winger blazed his shot over.

Despite a strong display from Preston after the break, they failed to add to their sole effort. "The chances we created were excellent," said manager Paul Simpson. "It was the best we have played in a long time."

McSheffrey secured the victory when, on 88 minutes, he was fouled in the penalty area by the defender Sean St Ledger. McSheffrey stepped up to strike the spot-kick past Nash. It was rough justice on Preston, who for large parts of the game had looked the team likelier to score.

"Finishing was the difference," added Simpson, whose side have now won just once in six games. "We allowed them back into the game because we didn't take our chances."