Elliott returns to Wolves with double trouble for McCarthy

Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 Preston North End 3: First home defeat since September for the leaders after former striker earns Preston stunning win
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First as Sunderland manager and then in charge of Wolverhampton Wanderers, Mick McCarthy demonstrated his admiration of the Republic of Ireland international Stephen Elliott by signing him. His defenders are apparently not as switched on to the striker's talents, judging by the latitude which allowed him to score twice in this thoroughly deserved, eye-opening Preston North End victory.

Elliott, sold last September, scored only twice at this stadium in 14 months as a Wolves player, his other three goals coming away. Including a spectacular effort for Sunderland, he has now netted three times at the venue in opposition colours.

"Where were you at Molineux?" chanted dismayed home fans when he was substituted, his work well done. Elliott's brace, on an afternoon on which Preston's manager, Alan Irvine, was sent to the stand for the final 16 minutes, confirmed 2009 as an unhappy one for Wolves so far, their lead at the top now only four points. They recently lost Michael Mancienne back to Chelsea and returned Alan Gow to Rangers on the findings of a medical. More worryingly, three Championship games since Christmas have yielded only two points. "When we cock up, we do it big style," McCarthy said. "It's sod's law Stephen Elliott comes back and does that. I bought him for those qualities and he's a good player. But we have not played well. They gifted us one goal and we gifted them three."

Wolves seemed on course when Andy Lonergan crashed a poor 20th minute clearance against Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, who steered a low right-foot shot inside the far post.

Preston have nothing like the same pressure on them as a Wolves team whose four changes included the absence for the first time this season of right-back Kevin Foley and the loss of the unwell Wayne Hennessey. Preston are punching above their weight and, after Michael Kightly had scooped wide a good chance to make it two, underlined their powers of recovery as Elliott drew an outstanding save from Ikeme with a fierce left-foot shot.

It was a temporary reprieve for Wolves, who were punished when Elliott turned in Ross Wallace's cross from the left. Wolves are some way below the form that brought Chris Iwelumo a hat-trick against Preston in September during the first of their two seven-match winning League runs. The striker has not scored since November and the man with whom he clashed when sent off at Deepdale, Sean St Ledger, had the next decisive say here. Youl Mawene nodded goalwards from Chris Sedgwick's corner, Parkin re-routed the ball by floating a header against the bar and St Ledger anticipated well to turn in.

There was little by way of response from Wolves, whose task might have become stiffer still had Elliott's fine curling shot at 1-1 dipped a few inches more. Preston appeared unlucky when Parkin's crashing shot was ruled out just after the interval for offside against a team-mate, but had to wait only until the hour to establish clear daylight. Carl Ikeme palmed away Wallace's centre and Sedgwick's resulting shot could have gone anywhere. Unfortunately for Wolves, it skewed across goal, where Elliott had a simple finish for his fifth Preston goal.

Wolves, beaten at home for the first time since September, had hope when Iwelumo headed against the bar and when they were awarded a penalty for hands against Parkin, only for referee Colin Webster to change his mind on his assistant's advice. By then, Irvine had hurled a water bottle to the ground in disgust – an act that saw him banished. But he said: "It's a fantasticresult against a very good team. We can compete in this division when we are at our best and have now beaten the top three clubs. That was close to the limits of what we're capable of."