Preston North End's Deepdale stadium has become something of a banana skin for Coca-Cola Championship promotion aspirants. Reading lost 3-0 there in midweek, and yesterday Richard Cresswell scored a first-half hat-trick as Preston beat Sunderland 3-2, a defeat that saw the Wearsiders replaced in the automatic promotion places by Wigan Athletic, 2-0 winners at Sheffield United.
Cresswell had not scored in his five previous games but was on target in the 13th, 30th and 43rd minutes. Sunderland responded with late strikes by Stephen Elliott and Sean Thornton, but it was too little for the Wearsiders, whose manager, Mick McCarthy, was not best pleased.
"Our worst, most inept, dreadful performance for 45 minutes that I have ever seen," he said. "There was nothing wrong with the pitch, the stadium, or the weather. The only thing wrong was us."
After three defeats, Wigan remembered how to win when, after seven minutes at Bramall Lane, Lee McCulloch volleyed in Jimmy Bullard's corner. Their second goal, by Nathan Ellington, quashed any Blades recovery, who slipped to sixth.
"No complaints at all," Neil Warnock, the Sheffield United manager, said. "In every department they beat us. Whoever finishes above Wigan will go straight up."
Danny Dichio, the Millwall striker, was sent off against Watford at the New Den in September and saw red again in the rematch at Vicarage Road. Later, Heidar Helguson scored to earn the Hornets a 1-0 win as the Lions dropped out of the top six.
Derby County's new year resolution was found wanting at Pride Park where Peter Thorne's 27th-minute goal earned Cardiff City a valuable 1-0 win. The Rams failed to clear Rhys Weston's long throw and Thorne headed in a simple goal from six yards. "Goals do not come much softer," George Burley, Derby's dissatisfied manager, fumed.
The win kept Cardiff clear of the bottom three, where a Eugen Bopp goal gave Nottingham Forest a 1-0 win, their first under acting manager Mick Harford, over Stoke City, who had Clint Hill and Clive Clarke sent off in the last five minutes. "We know what we've got to do to stay up," Harford revealed. "Amass a lot of points in a short space of time - and this win was much needed."
Forest's midfielder Andy Reid set up the goal, and with the Premiership transfer window opening, the pressure to hang on to him and centre-back Michael Dawson is intense. But not as intense as the pressure on Ronnie Moore's Rotherham United, who are now 11 points from safety after they lost 2-1 at home to Coventry City. "We lost this one because we cannot defend," Moore admitted.
Crewe Alexandra's Dean Ashton is another Championship asset under Premiership scrutiny but his manager, Dario Gradi, hopes he will stay after his 19th goal this season set up a 2-0 win at Leeds. "We will not be able to keep him beyond the end of the season. We have had an offer from a big club but I don't think he will go before that."
Mark Rivers added Crewe's second, Leeds had Paul Butler sent off, and Alex moved up to eighth. Promotion? "We don't have strength in depth. We would need to control the game more than we do. It's a nice thought, and we would enjoy it for a season."
Elsewhere, Queen's Park Rangers were held to a goalless home draw by Brighton and had Paul Furlong sent off, while Glenn Hoddle's Wolves were held to a 1-1 draw by visitors Plymouth Argyle. "I've never been in charge of a team that has given away so many stupid goals back-to-back," an unhappy Hoddle moaned.
Burnley's game against Leicester City at Turf Moor was abandoned after 19 minutes, torrential rain waterlogging the pitch.
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