THE long wait is over.
Wigan finally ended their Deepdale jinx in emphatic fashion, almost 12 years to the day since they last recorded three points there.
It’s been a barren time since a single goal from Paul Cook gave Latics victory at Preston on August 29, 1987, but all that ended on Saturday afternoon.
While Cook, now plying his trade with Burnley, was the hero that day, the star status 12 years on belonged to Stuart Barlow.
His hat-trick helped turn this enthralling game on it’s head after Preston had taken the lead and threatened to run away with the points.
But it all turned Latics’ way in first half injury time when Preston keeper David Lucas was sent off for bringing Andy Liddell down in the box, and Barlow hammered home the equaliser from the penalty spot.
From then on the afternoon belonged to Latics, with Barlow completing his treble and Simon Haworth also getting his name on the scoresheet in the second half.
Not only did the win put paid to their miserable record at Deepdale, it was also Latics’ first victory over Preston since 1992 – a run of 12 games.
And another point worthy of note was that was their first ever league victory in front of a crowd above 10,000.
So it was little wonder that the mood in the away dressing room and among the 2,500 travelling supporters was one of joy and celbration come the final whistle.
But who in the ground could have predicted the win after Latics’ shocking first half display?
Manager John Benson admitted later that they had been very poor in the opening period, allowing Preston to boss the game.
“We didn’t pick their runners up and we became obsessed with playing long balls down the channels,” said the boss.
“I told them at half time to start passing the ball to the feet and doing what we are best at.”
Haworth saw a rising shot tipped over the bar by Lucas with just 39 seconds gone, but until Barlow’s equaliser, their only other chance of note was a header from Pat McGibbon which flew well wide of the target.
At the other end Jonathan Macken headed a cross from Ryan Kidd just wide, before the home side went ahead in the 18th minute.
Graham Alexander crossed from the right wing and STEVE BASHAM rose in the box to flick a header over Roy Carroll.
The keeper saved a low shot from David Eyres in the 32nd minute, before the woodwork came to Latics’ rescue four minutes later.
Basham’s through ball sent Michael Appleton clear on the left side of the box and his shot beat Carroll but rattled off the underside of the bar and bounced to safety.
It was the piece of good fortune which they needed, and two minutes into first half stoppage time, the equaliser arrived.
An attempted back pass from Kidd fell woefully short of it’s target allowing Liddell a clear run on goal.
His legs were whipped away from under him as he went round Lucas, and although Barlow shot the loose ball wide, referee David Pugh called play back and pointed to the spot.
Lucas saw red, on came substitute keeper Tepi Moilanen, and BARLOW kept his cool to slam home the penalty.
With Preston having to resort to a wingless 4-3-2 formation, Benson shrewdly withdrew Mark Bowen at the interval, moving Darren Sheridan to left back and putting David Lee on to exploit the space down the left wing.
It worked a treat as Latics shook off their first half slumbers to put on a top class second half display.
Within two minutes of the restart they went ahead thanks to a terrible blunder from Moilanen.
The big Finnish keeper raced out the box to clear Alexander’s back pass, but the ball sat up off the lush turf and he completely missed his kick.
It left the chasing BARLOW with an empty net, and he cooly brought the ball under control and rolled home a low shot.
Latics were now in control, and Haworth saw a low shot on the turn saved by Moilanen, while Barlow headed straight at the keeper from a good position.
At the other end, Carroll saved at the feet of Basham as he closed in to meet Alexander’s cross.
Kilford nodded wide at the far post from Lee’s pin point cross in the 71st minute, before Latics made sure of victory with seven minutes left.
Liddell scooped a delightful pass over the top of the home defence and HAWORTH timed his run to perfection to head past the advancing Moilanen from 12 yards.
They weren’t finished though, and with two minutes left on the clock, the fourth goal went in.
Scott Green, who once again caught the eye at right back, sent a deep cross to the far post and BARLOW ghosted in to squeeze a header under Moilanen and over the line.
His joy at completing his first hat-trick in a Latics shirt was plain to see, and at the final whistle he celebrated in front of the travelling fans by juggling the match ball from foot to foot.
Barlow later revealed that he had predicted scoring a treble during contract talks with Benson this week.
On this form, a new deal is probably in the post as we speak!
MATCH REPORT by Dave Seddon – Wigan Evening Post