Notts County 0 Preston 1: Little to cheer for fans on a night of few positives
NOTTS County hopes of making a late charge for promotion in League One were dented by a 1-0 defeat against Preston North End at Meadow Lane.
The Magpies desperately needed to win to close the gap on the play-offs, but young centre-back Haydn Hollis scored an own goal in the first half to gift the visitors the victory – which leaves Notts still well adrift off the top six with only eight games of the season left.
The big news before kick-off was that the Magpies' star midfielder Alan Judge was still out injured and striker Enoch Showunmi had got the nod in attack for the first time under new boss Chris Kiwomya.
It was only Showunmi's fourth league start of the season – and his first in 11 games – and Kiwomya sprung another big surprise by sticking Jeff Hughes in an advanced role in behind the big no.9.
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Francois Zoko came back into the Notts team on the left wing, joining captain Neal Bishop, Andre Boucaud and Jamal Campbell-Ryce in midfield, while the back four was unchanged after keeping a clean-sheet at Crawley, with Gary Liddle, Manny Smith, Hollis and Alan Sheehan starting in front of goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski.
The Magpies started brightly and Hughes sent Zoko racing into the penalty area after less than two minutes, but defender Paul Huntington got back and tackled the Ivorian, stopping him in his tracks as he was about to cross the ball into the six-yard box.
The Notts fans were hoping that early attack would set the tone of the game – but it did not and it quickly turned into a scrappy affair, with neither side able to take control.
There was little action in the opening stages. Preston striker Stuart Beavon drove a shot at goal on nine minutes from the edge of the box that hit Smith, defender Paul Connolly then whipped a dangerous cross into the Magpies' box on 12 minutes that Liddle hacked clear and Sheehan swung a cross into the box for Showunmi a minute later, but the visitors' keeper Declan Rudd came off his line and beat him to the ball.
The first real chance of the game fell to Preston on 18 minutes, the ball dropping to winger Lee Holmes inside the box and he volleyed just wide of Bialkowski's left-hand post.
Notts then suffered the blow of losing Campbell-Ryce to injury almost midway through the first half.
He limped off to cheers from the away fans, who have not forgiven him for breaking the leg of Preston defender Scott Laird in the first game between the two sides at Deepdale back in November, and youngster Curtis Thompson came on for his League debut.
When the game got back underway, Preston threatened again on 30 minutes, Beavon cutting inside from the left and firing a shot over the crossbar from 25 yards.
The Magpies had no reply and, with their fans starting to vent their frustration from the stands, it soon got worse as they went 1-0 down on 34 minutes, former Nottingham Forest striker Joe Garner hitting a cross into the six-yard box from the left that struck Hollis and bounced past Bialkowski into the net.
Notts finally rallied in the closing stages of the first half.
Hughes put Thompson through into the box on 43 minutes and he got a good shot in at goal, but was denied by Rudd and Hughes crashed the rebound against the crossbar.
But after going so close to equalising, the Magpies were lucky not to be 2-0 down at half-time, as Beavon hit them on the break in injury time.
Racing all the way to the edge of the penalty area from the halfway line unchallenged to be one-on-one with Bialkowski, he looked set to double the visitors lead, but the Notts no.1 made a great block to stop him scoring and keep the Magpies' hopes of a fight-back alive at the break.
The Notts players were back out early for the start of the second half, clearly determined to force their way back into the game and Showunmi had a good chance on 52 minutes.
Thompson put a good cross into the box that fell to him, but his driven shot was blocked.
It was still not quite happening for the Magpies, though, so Kiwomya threw on French striker Yoann Arquin for Zoko on the hour mark and he was quickly involved in the action, racing onto a good flick from Hughes a minute later, holding off a defender inside the box and firing a shot at goal that Rudd saved.
It did not signal the start of an onslaught on the Preston goal, though, and Notts failed to keep the pressure on the visitors.
The frustration got to Bishop as he lunged in at Nicky Wroe and was booked on 73 minutes.
Showunmi then tried to release Thompson on 75 minutes, but over hit his pass into the box and the ball rolled harmlessly out for a goal kick.
Nothing was coming off for the Magpies – but Showunmi soon came off for on-loan Leicester City striker Jacob Blyth on 76 minutes as Kiwomya had one last throw of the dice to try and salvage at least a point.
But it was the visitors who went close to scoring in the closing stages, captain John Welsh beating Smith to the ball just inside the Notts half, darting forward towards the box and trying to curl a shot inside Bialkowski's left-hand post that the Pole parried away at full stretch.
Bialkowski then made a good save to deny Preston sub Graham Cummins from close range on 90 minutes, before racing up the pitch when Notts won a corner in the third minute of injury time.
He did not get on the end of Sheehan's flag kick though and Preston countered quickly through Wroe, who had an empty goal at his mercy, but shot wide from long-range to ironic cheers from the Magpies fans. It was all they got to cheer all night.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Jeff Hughes. The Northern Ireland international did more than anybody else to try and spark the Magpies into life on a bad night at Meadow Lane.
REF WATCH: Mick Russell (Hertfordshire). The ref had a good game. He didn't get any decisions wrong and let the game flow. Preston fans were calling for him to send Neal Bishop off in the second half for a foul on Nicky Wroe, but he was right just to book him.
ATTENDANCE: 3,587 (368 away)
NOTTS: Bialkowski, Liddle, Smith, Hollis, Sheehan, Campbell-Ryce (Thompson, 23), Bishop, Boucaud, Zoko (Arquin, 60), Hughes, Showunmi (Blyth, 76). Subs: Spiess, Tempest, Bencherif, Waite.
PRESTON: Rudd, Connolly, Huntington, Wright (Robertson, 46), Buchanan, Holmes, Wroe, Welsh (Mousinho, 85), Hayhurst, Beavon, Garner (Cummins, 78). Subs: Stuckmann, Keane, Monakana, Beardsley.
Other League One results: Brentford 2 Swindon 1, Coventry 2 Colchester 2, Leyton Orient 1 Portsmouth 0, MK Dons 2 Shrewsbury 3, Stevenage 0 Bournemouth 1, Walsall 2 Tranmere 0, Yeovil 2 Crawley 2