Lee Hughes' return to form and favour was rubber-stamped yesterday as West Bromwich Albion scrambled into second place in the First Division. The local hero did not score a single Premiership goal last season but, back on the Nationwide League beat, now has four in three games.
Not that Preston appreciated his contribution. His unerring penalty winner came from a first-half flashpoint that earned North End goalkeeper, Jonathan Gould, a red card. Hughes controversially won the kick and ignored the subsequent four-minute furore to drive in hard and low to secure a fourth successive victory.
The West Bromwich manager, Gary Megson, admitted his side did not play well, nor at Watford on Saturday. "We have six points and two clean sheets, though, so we've had a great Bank Holiday weekend," he said. The chant "1-0 to the Albion", which heralded last year's promotion campaign, is right back in vogue but, purely on performances, the Preston manager, Craig Brown, was the happier. "I think the euphemism is that it was a 'controversial penalty'," he said. "The referee said at half-time it was an honest decision. I would rather he had said it was a wrong one. I'm told TV will confirm there was no contact."
The 40th-minute award came when Hughes chased an under-hit back-pass from Graham Alexander and fell under Gould's checked challenge. The spot-kick ruling was harsh enough on Preston. The red card rubbed salt in the wound and the recipient had to be forcibly restrained from serious altercations with both the referee, Alan Kaye, and Hughes.
Albion over-relied on the long ball in a first half in which Preston occasionally displayed a slickness belying their record of not having won in five league and cup games.They might have won a penalty themselves in the opening seconds and, even when Artim Sakiri's clumsy trip on Ricardo Fuller was adjudged outside the area, Eddie Lewis brought a smart save from Russell Hoult.
It was tempting to say the mismatch of 10 against 11 would ruin an already poor game. But, for Albion at least, the second half improved considerably, efforts from the substitutes Rob Hulse and Scott Dobie bringing good saves from the substitute 'keeper David Lucas.
Hulse, in particular, made a big difference and the former Preston captain Sean Gregan was formidable at the back for the home side, although Richard Cresswell twice went close after Hughes shot was headed off the line by Marlon Broomes.
West Bromwich Albion (3-5-2): Hoult; Gaardsoe, Gregan, Volmer (Dobie, 77); Haas, O'Connor, Koumas, Sakiri (Johnson, 54), Clement; Dichio (Hulse, 59), Hughes. Substitutes not used: Murphy (gk), James Chambers.
Preston North End (3-5-2): Gould; Davis (Jackson, 73), Lucketti, Broomes; Alexander (Lucas, 40), McKenna, Keane, O'Neil (Healy 84), Lewis; Cresswell, Fuller. Substitutes not used: Etuhu, Edwards.
Referee: A Kaye (Wakefield).