As the season nears an end this was a fixture above all overs that Wigan deserately needed to win. It was not to be as they suffered their fourth reversal of the season and in front of the largest home crowd in their brief league existence.
The game lived up to all it’s expectations as a rough, hard fought , top-of-the-table, local derby. Premier League referee Uriah Rennie had to reach to his pocket six times for the yellow card and Preston North End centre half Jackson left the field with a suspected broken nose after a second half collision left him covered in blood, but I expect that was the last thing on his mind at the end of the 90 tempestuous minutes.
Heavy security surrounded the stadium to try and prevent any repeat of crowd trouble witnessed at previous big games this season. This never materialised, much to the relief of officials at both clubs, as all eyes were glued to the action on the pitch before them.
Wigan were missing a number of players for the biggest game of the season and a number of team changes were forced upon manager John Benson.
Andy Liddell, who has been at the centre of everything positive this season, was forced to sit in the stand as a spectator after limping off in the final minutes of Saturday’s away win at Brentford with a thigh strain.
Stuart Barlow, Wigan’s top scorer this season and a natural replacement for Liddell, underwent surgery to remove fragements of bone from his ankle earlier in the day and could be out for four to five weeks therefore finishing his season.
Scott Green finished his suspension he received after his dismissal against Chesterfield at Saltergate.
All three have been key players in their quest for promotion so far this season and were sorely missed from the starting line up as Wigan seemed to lack that little something up front.
This was no disrespect to Welsh international Neil Roberts who returned to partner Simon Haworth in a two man strike force after four weeks out with an ankle ligaments injury. However, Roberts was obviously not match fit and had not done a full days training since hobbling from the field against Blackpool early last month.
The game itself started off at a frantic pace but no real chances to speak off in the first 15 minutes. That was until referee Rennie awarded Preston a free kick 20 yards out after Darren Sheridan had been adjudged to have raised his boot in a challenge as Preston pushed forward on the attack. McKenna drove the resulting free kick into the wall, the ball deflecting off Simon Haworth and behind for a corner.
Edwards played a quick one-two with Gunnlaugsson from the corner and floated a cross to the far post. Neil Roberts attempted to clear the ball with his head but only succeeded in playing the ball back across the goalmouth and Preston centre half Michael Jackson beat Peron to the loose ball, sticking a leg out to loop a shot over Roy Carroll from 5 yards out, sending Preston’s huge following wild.
Wigan pushed forward and Neil Redfearn hammered a shot towards goal only to see it blocked in the area by a Preston defender. Shortly after Terry Cooke, playing in his final game of the month’s loan from Manchester City, weaved through the Preston midfield and then defence only to shoot feebily straight into arms of Preston’s giant goalkeeper Moilanen.
Preston also had chances at the other end to increase their lead with former Wigan target and Preston skipper Sean Gregan heading narrowly over the bar and Roy Carroll had to pull off a fine save to deny Anderson after he had raced into the box.
Wigan had probably their best chances of the half in the dying seconds as many of the spectators had left their seats in a bid to gain advantage in the queue for the bar and that much needed half-time pint.
Griffiths glanced a header over the bar from a Sheridan inswinging corner and then Finnish goalkeeper Moilanen earned his wages by twice denying Wigan in less than a minute with fine saves.
First he managed to get down low and push a Simon Haworth shot round the post after Cooke had put the Welshman clear with a reaonably clear view of the goal. Then, from the resulting Sheridan corner, de Zeeuw stole in between the defence and powered a header with seemed destined to squeeze in under the bar until Moilanen stetched to tip the ball over the bar.
Skipper Carl Bradshaw was introduced to the action after the interval, replacing new father Gareth Griffiths, and Wigan reverted to a 4-4-2 formation, Bradshaw slotting in behind Peron at left back, allowing Peron to push forward more down the flank. This proved a success as Wigan won the lion’s share of the action down that left wing but Peron’s final touches didn’t quite provide the results that Latics so desperately needed.
Redfearn was again in the thick of things seeing a shot fly wide of the mark before thundering a shot from just outside the area charged down by the formiddable Sean Gregan.
Another Sheridan corner provided Latics and Terry Cooke with a chance to level after the cross floated over the melee in the middle of the box and found Cooke free beyond the far post only for his header to fly narrowly over the bar and onto the roof of the net.
The action then moved to the opposite end of the field with Gunnlaugsson crossing the ball to find Macken free in the middle but Carroll was again on hand to deny the former Manchester United striker with a fine save.
Peron came close to salvaging a point from the game in the final minutes. Firstly, he lobbed a shot just over the bar after a Bradshaw free kick was headed down and found the Frenchman in space in the area.
He then had two shots blocked by Ryan Kidd in the area after Peron was brought down on the edge of the box. Bradshaw chipped the free kick into the middle and Peron drove the ball goalbound but Kidd managed to block only for the ball to return to the feet of Peron who quickly fired another shot at goal but Kidd this time stopped the shot with his stomach, despite the appeals of hand-ball from the Wigan faithful, and the danger was quickly cleared.
Sean Gregan left the field in the final ten minutes with a back injury and his absence, if he doesn’t recover, would be a major blow to Preston in their quest for the championship and promotion to the first division for the first time in nearly twenty years.
It became obvious the further the game progressed that Andy Liddell was sorely missed and Scott Green’s dominance at the back added to his attacking runs would have made an impact on this hard fought derby.
The blow of this defeat was softened for Wigan fans after hearing that Bristol Rovers had suffered a surprise home defeat at the hands of Reading but Preston must now be seen as clear favourites for the title with just a month of the season left to play and Preston now moving seven points clear albeit with Latics having a game in hand on the Lillywhites.
Next up it’s Oxford United at the JJB Stadium this coming Saturday closely following by a trip up the M60 to Oldham and hopefully revenge for the home defeat suffered at the hands of the Boundary Park side in front of the Sky TV cameras in early January.