Despite a top-class performance by Kevin Pilkington and some last-ditch defending, Notts County were beaten 2-0 by Preston North End. It took 65 minutes for the hosts to finally beat the Magpies’ goalkeeping coach, who made a string of excellent saves, as Craig Davies found the top corner, ahead of a controversial penalty from Joe Garner secured maximum points at Deepdale.
New boy Gareth Roberts was handed his Notts debut at left-back as a result of an injury to skipper Dean Leacock. Regular full-back and stand-in captain Alan Sheehan shifted inside to partner Manny Smith at the heart of defence as one of two changes to the side that faced Walsall the previous weekend.
All attentions were focused on the other piece of team news, as it was revealed that in-form goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski was ruled out of the fixture through illness. Back-up stopper Fabian Spiess remained sidelined due to a hand injury, meaning Pilkington dusted off his gloves and youth team custodian Harry Andrews was named among the six substitutes.
Pilkington, who played his first game since a substitute appearance away at Brentford in March 2013, would have been forgiven for a touch of rustiness but this was not the case as he was tested in the very first minute. Following Andre Boucaud’s trip on Garner, Paul Gallagher curled around the wall with a powerful free-kick but Pilkington reacted sharply down to his left to push clear.
Notts looked dangerous going forward, particularly through Jamal Campbell-Ryce in the wide areas. After a quick exchange with Jack Grealish, the winger delivered a dangerous cross that deflected away from Callum McGregor before he could apply a finish.
McGregor did manage to get a shot away moments later, when he drifted infield to sting the palms of the home goalkeeper, Declan Rudd. Mark Fotheringham also threatened from range with an effort that was diverted wide of the mark.
Pilkington was called into action again in the 16th minute with an even better save than his first. The ball rose invitingly for Davies and his 20 yard volley on the turn looked destined for the top-left corner, only for Pilkington to parry behind at full stretch.
Two minutes later, Notts nearly moved in front from a dangerous McGregor corner. Enoch Showunmi got ahead of his marker but his thumping header cleared the bar by inches.
Gallagher had another opportunity to put the hosts ahead, following an impressive move in the final third. Play was quickly shifted across the County backline to allow the wideman space inside the box but his low attempt rolled wide of the right-hand post.
On 29, Garner had the home fans on their feet when he latched onto an in-swinging John Welsh cross to send a downward header bouncing narrowly off target. In quick response, the Magpies broke when Showunmi found Grealish, though the Aston Villa youngster’s clever finish over Rudd swerved away from goal.
Notts came within a whisker of a half time lead when the Preston rearguard struggled to clear and the ball fell into the path of Fotheringham. The industrious midfielder’s strike deflected wildly to wrong-foot Rudd, who could only breathe a sigh of relief as the ball nestled into the side netting.
Preston applied the majority of the pressure at the start of the second period and would have had the ball in the back of the net had it not been for Roberts. The left-back stayed on his post for a corner and hacked Davies’ powerful hit off the line before repeating to keep out a strong Garner header.
Pilkington remained in top form between the sticks and kept out a low Garner attempt with an outstretched leg. The 39-year-old then tipped behind Lee Holmes’ long-range shot and later produced an outstanding one-handed parry to deny Gallagher.
Pilkington was finally beaten in the 65th minute, when Neil Kilkenny fed the ball to Davies with his back to goal. The striker was given too much time and he turned before striking into the top-right corner.
North End doubled their lead six minutes later after they were awarded a controversial penalty, as not only did Grealish appear to take the ball with a tackle on Davies, it was deemed to be outside the box by the County players, who protested the decision. Garner stepped up to take the spot-kick and fired out of Pilkington’s reach, inside the right-hand upright.
With eight minutes left on the clock, Kwesi Appiah, who had replaced Showunmi in attack, should have handed Notts a lifeline after his clever run was met by an incisive McGregor through-ball. The striker beat Rudd with a low effort across goal but found the wrong side of the far post.
County put everything they had into the game and were much improved on the previous weekend’s display even if it did not warrant any points. Their efforts were appreciated by the fantastic away supporters, who sang for their team beyond the final whistle.
Outstanding performance by the goalkeeping coach with a number of impressive saves. No chance with the goals.