Chris Iwelumo collected three goals and a red card in an eventful encounter highlighting the promotion potential of a Wolverhampton team that finished with nine men and their manager, Mick McCarthy, banished to the stands as a punishment for applauding the referee.
Their well-drilled mix of pace and aggression eventually wore down a Preston team who were beaten for the first time and can only clutch at the fragile straw of an early penalty claim.
While Michael Kightly was the player who posed most problems for Preston, Iwelumo emerged as the most significant figure as he scored for the eighth time in seven games. Opportunities to improve on such an impressive start will be put on hold though until he serves a three-match ban for head-butting Sean St Ledger near the end.
Iwelumo hopes the suspension will be overturned after he and St Ledger saw referee Martin Atkinson to insist that the clash had been accidental. "He can't have a better witness than somebody he has just run rings round all afternoon," said McCarthy, whose removal from the touchline followed an incident at the end of the first half.
With Preston supporters targeting Atkinson for abuse, McCarthy made a point of waiting to applaud him down the tunnel.
"I wanted to show my support for him," McCarthy said. "I thought he did really well to resist giving decisions when the crowd was vociferous. Then I was asked to go and see him and asked to sit behind the dug-out. I must be the first person to be sent off for applauding a ref off."
The main reason for the fans' anger was a series of incidents shortly before the break when a goal from Neil Mellor was ruled out for offside, and Jon Parkin's shot against a post was rendered meaningless by a disputed foul. Preston had a more valid argument over a 10th-minute claim for a penalty when Danny Collins handled on the line, although a foul on the goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey was overlooked in the build-up. But the Preston manager, Alan Irvine, said: "It's not about the referee – it's about how we played. We can't dwell on decisions. We have to learn from that performance."
Irvine is right not to play the bad-luck card because Wolves were generally the more assured side, with Kightly's pace and penetration showing why he is the talk of this division.
Andy Lonergan, the Preston keeper, had to save from the winger and Sylvan Ebanks-Blake before Wolves went ahead in the 35th minute in spectacular fashion. Collins caused confusion in the Preston defence after his header came back off the bar and Iwelumo capitalised stylishly with an overhead kick that angled in at the far post.
His second goal in the 65th minute was a more mundane affair as he slid in a cross from Kightly, who was crudely brought down by Billy Jones for the penalty that brought Iwelumo's hat-trick in the 72nd minute.
Iwelumo, who once spent a week on trial at Preston, was to last only four more minutes before his memorable day turned sour. And Wolves finished with nine after Hennessey was dismissed late on for a foul on Mellor, who beat stand-in keeper Jason Shackell from the spot.