Notts County’s Play-Off hopes suffered a significant blow, after a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Preston North End at Meadow Lane. Brentford’s triumph over Swindon Town saw the gap between Notts and the top six extended to nine points – an almost insurmountable difference with just eight games remaining.
The decisive goal came in the 36th minute, when a dangerous cross forced an own goal from Haydn Hollis. County managed just six attempts on goal all evening, with youth team graduate Curtis Thompson and second-half substitute Yoann Arquin coming closest for the Magpies.
Enoch Showunmi’s impressive display off the bench away at Crawley saw him earn his first start since the end of January at the spearhead of the Magpies’ attack. Francois Zoko also returned to the starting 11, as Jacob Blyth and Hamza Bencherif dropped to the bench.
Those in attendance had hoped for a much livelier affair than the previous year’s encounter at Meadow Lane – a goalless draw that provided little in terms of entertainment. The opening exchanges hardly suggested that this meeting would differ, as both sides scrapped for possession in the middle of the park.
It was the 14th minute that brought the first piece of action, when, for the visitors, midfielder Joe Garner touched the ball inside towards Stuart Beavon. 18 yards from goal, the frontman attempted to pull the trigger but Manny Smith stooped to intercept with a brave header.
Four minutes later, Preston threatened again, as winger Lee Holmes met Haydn Hollis’ headed clearance with a powerful volley from the edge of the box. However, the ball swerved away from goal and narrowly wide of Bartosz Bialkowski’s left-hand post.
First team manager Chris Kiwomya was forced into an early substitution, due to an injury to Jamal Campbell-Ryce. In his place, Thompson was handed his Football League debut on the right side of a flexible 4-5-1 formation.
On 34, North End moved in front, when William Hayhurst, from the left flank, was given room to fire a dangerous cross into the six-yard box. In an attempt to clear with his face to goal, Hollis, under pressure from Garner, was unfortunate to see the ball deflect off his thigh and into the bottom-right corner.
Moments later, the visitors nearly doubled their lead, when Nicky Wroe’s quick free-kick caught County off guard. Holmes delivered a low centre, which was hacked away by Gary Liddle, before delivering another cross that centre-back Bailey Wright nodded over.
Preston continued to push for a second ahead of the interval and had two decent long-range efforts in quick succession. First Beavon cut inside from the left to clear the bar and then Holmes drilled inches over, after taking advantage of a loose ball in midfield.
Despite not seeing much action in the final third, Notts almost drew level just moments before half time, when Jeff Hughes met Thompson’s diagonal run across the front of the away backline. The 19-year-old wrestled free of his marker but his shot was well blocked by North End goalkeeper Declan Rudd, who had rushed sharply off his line.
Hughes looked to capitalise on the rebound and applied a volley that looped onto the crossbar. Zoko then followed up with a first-time hit but sent the finish high into the Kop Stand behind the goal.
The home fans raised the volume and County pumped several tricky deliveries into the box, via Alan Sheehan, but it was from bombardment that Preston almost made it 2-0 on the counter attack. A clearance out of defence led to Beavon racing clear of the home rearguard, though a bad touch let him down and Bialkowski was able to narrow the angle and make a vital save.
Notts almost got the second half off to the start they needed, with Thompson unlucky not to see his cross converted at the near post by Neal Bishop. As North End struggled to clear, Showunmi made space for himself inside the box but his shot was charged down.
On 60, a long punt out of the visitors’ defence led to Beavon muscling free of Smith, as he progressed into the box. The former Wycombe Wanderers man then delivered a low drive, which was well kept out by Bialkowski, who reacted down to his left.
To boost the Magpies’ options in attack, Kiwomya replaced Zoko with Arquin and moved to a 4-4-2. Shortly after the change, Hughes found Arquin with a perfectly weighted lob that saw the Frenchman hold off a defender and sting the palms of the goalkeeper with a strong volley.
This was one of very few openings for the Magpies during the second period, as Preston maintained an organised defensive unit. At the same time, they looked a threat on the break and arguably should have killed the game off late on.
Away skipper John Welsh was gifted a clear-cut chance by a fortunate deflection but his curled effort was pushed clear by Bialkowski. In the final minute of the 90, the stopper was called into action again, this time by substitute Graham Cummins, whose low attempt required the Pole to get down well to his left.
With one final throw of the dice, even Bialkowski raced forward for a corner deep into added time. Again, the visitors broke but Wroe was unable to find the net with a long-range chip, as the goalkeeper retreated to his goal-line.