McKenna magic lifts Preston into contention

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After four away matches without a win, Preston North End rekindled their promotion ambitions thanks to a two-goal burst in six minutes either side of half- time that set up a 2-0 win at relegated Stockport County.

Preston dominated the first half, but just when it seemed County would reach the break unscathed, Paul McKenna met Graham Alexander's cross with a fierce volley on the edge of the 18-yard box to put the visitors ahead. The second half was only six minutes old when Cresswell, who had twice gone close in the first period, added the second. They are now just one point from the play-offs.

"We'll probably see a clearer picture after the two games over Easter," Kelham O'Hanlon, the Preston manager, said. "But the win puts us right back into the play-off race."

The Selhurst Park-based clubs, Crystal Palace and Wimbledon, both harbour hopes of a longer season via the play-offs, but only the former advanced their cause yesterday although both faced sides battling to avoid the same fate as Stockport.

Palace eventually overcame the resistance of Walsall, 23rd in the table, at home when Clinton Morrison and substitiute Dougie Freedman scored a goal each in the space of four minutes late in the game. "Over the last few games I thought Freedman looked a little tired," his manager, Trevor Francis, said. "It was always my intention to bring him on after the hour." It worked. "When they changed their shape it did throw us into turmoil," the Saddlers' Colin Lee admitted, adding, possibly seriously: "If you take away the mistakes our football wasn't too bad."

The Dons, meanwhile, lost 6-2 at resurgent Grimsby Town. Hat-tricks for Michael Boulding and Alan Pouton, who scored two from the penalty spot, and the sending-off of Wimbledon goalkeeper Ian Feuer for a professional foul when the score was only 3-2, lifted the Mariners. Shane Gore took Feuer's place and saved Pouton's spot-kick, his first-ever touch in League football, but the referee's assistant said he had moved too soon and the retaken kick went in.

Barnsley's dip in form had dragged them back into the relegation argument. Two goals in 14 minutes separated by half-time were enough to defeat Watford 2-0. Bruce Dyer grabbed the first, "a shining light over the last three to four weeks when the place has been a bit down," his manager Steve Parkin, glowed.

At the bottom, it is a time for cool nerves and accurate calculations. Bradford City beat Crewe 2-0 to edge closer to safety. "We are eight points clear of relegation with only five games left," Nicky Law, the Bantams' boss, said. "It is going to be difficult for the teams below us to catch us." Crewe are one of them, a point above relegation. Their manager, Dario Gradi, had his abacus out too: "We need three wins out of eight for safety."

Sheffield Wednesday were frustrated by several fine saves from Portsmouth's Dave Beasant, 43, as they had the better of a goalless draw at Fratton Park.

Nerves abounded at the top of the Second Division where the two teams in the automatic promotion spots, Reading and Brighton, were held to 2-2 home draws against Oldham and Notts County respectively. Plymouth Argyle, the Third Division leaders, are one win away from promotion after they beat Lincoln 1-0 at Sincil Bank, and Luton will not be far behind them thanks to their 5-0 thumping of the League's bottom club, Halifax.

In Scotland, 10-man Aberdeen held on to third place thanks to a goalless draw at fourth-placed Livingston but the shock of the day came at Hearts where bottom-of-the-table St Johnstone staved off relegation for another week when Tommy Lovenkrands scored twice and was felled for John Paul McBride's penalty in the 3-1 win. Elsewhere, Hibernian won 2-1 at Dundee United and Dunfermline beat visitors Dundee 2-0.