THIS was not the birthday night that David Wagner would have envisaged.
Although truth be told, Preston has not been a party venue for Huddersfield Town for a very long time.
Town fans have grown used to witnessing some grim episodes in this part of Lancashire – and it was a case of all quiet on the Preston front yet again on the occasion of Wagner’s 45th birthday.
Deepdale has seen a dearth of Town wins, ever since a Frank Worthington-inspired 3-1 victory in that fateful campaign of 1969-70 in the old second division when Ian Greaves’ all-conquering crop were promoted to the top-flight.
A season which was shaping up into one of the most memorable since those heady days has now hit a bit of a bump in the road – on the back of successive league defeats for the first time in 2016-17.
Granted, Town’s current position of fourth is still manifestly excellent, but given the way in which the bar has been magnificently raised by Wagner’s troops, last night’s Roses loss was somewhat deflating.
On a night when the visitors could have moved up to second place, level on points with leaders Newcastle United, it was the hosts who emphatically prevailed, extending their unbeaten home sequence over Town to 15 matches in the process.
Huddersfield may have been afforded plaudits for their gegenpressing high-energy approach this term, but an in-your-face Preston side gave them a taste of their own medicine.
Town were uncharacteristically bossed and bullied, especially in a thoroughly one-sided first-half which yielded headed goals from former Huddersfield player Tom Clarke and Alex Baptiste.
The home dominance continued in the early part of the second half with the outstanding Paul Gallagher – supplier for the first two goals – crowning his fine performance with a killer third on 53 minutes with his curling free-kick deceiving everyone.
Town may have followed up their previous two league losses with victories, but Preston comprehensively ended the prospect of another with a performance of towering substance with the visiting defence toiling somewhat – and conceding more than one goal for the first time in the league this season.
Huddersfield’s poor historical sequence at Preston did not prevent a travelling contingent of around 2,500 converging on Deepdale, no doubt eyeing another stand-out away win following earlier – and rare – victories at St James’ Park and Portman Road.
But it was a familiar refrain, with former Huddersfield chief Simon Grayson – and not Wagner – who was infinitely more satisfied at the final whistle.
Town will be hoping that another ex-manager in Derby County No 2 Chris Powell is not afforded similar contentment on Saturday tea-time.
Wagner had stressed that Preston would pose the most physical examination that his side have faced so far this term and also highlighted their set-piece threat and his words proved prophetic.
Grayson also proved as good as his word in his declared aim that his players would not let Town settle, with the visitors afforded a very uncomfortable opening half when the hosts were first to virtually everything. It yielded an early opener, with a delicious free-kick delivery on the left from Gallagher swinging into the danger zone and Clarke connected with a header which went in off the far post – passing up the chance to celebrate. Wagner’s side were simply not allowed to settle, with the home pressure continuing with Ward having to be alert to tip over Jordan Hugill’s meaty header before smothering Clarke’s low shot at the second attempt.
Town had a couple of belated incursions forward just after the half-hour mark, with the recalled Jack Payne and the hitherto quiet Aaron Mooy seeing shots blocked, but the half proceeded to end how it started. Again, the prowess of Gallagher came to the fore, with his quality delivery, this time from the right, finding Baptiste, whose bullet header from ten yards out gave Ward no chance – with Town looking suspect again under the high ball.
Wagner had plenty to ponder at the interval – and showed what he made of events by making two changes. Nahki Wells and Harry Bunn came on for Elias Kachunga and Rajiv Van La Parra, who had low-key first halves, although they certainly were not alone.
But the game was over as a meaningful contest when Gallagher made it 3-0, although Town did show more assertion in the second half, with Payne not far away on a couple of occasions and Tommy Smith and Mooy seeing strikes deflected just wide.
But the damage had been done, although Wells did manage a 81st-minute consolation when he nodded home from close range after Christopher Schindler headed Payne’s free-kick across goal.
Preston North End: Maxwell; Baptiste, Clarke, Wright, Cunningham; Gallagher (Humphrey 76), Pearson, Johnson, Pringle (Doyle 86); Robinson, Hugill (Makienok 90). Unused substitutes: Lindegaard, Browne, Spurr, Huntington
Huddersfield Town: Ward; Smith, Hudson, Schindler, Lowe, Hogg, Mooy; Scannell (Palmer 67), Payne, Van La Parra (Bunn 45); Kachunga (Wells 45). Unused substitutes: Coleman, Whitehead, Cranie, Hefele.
Referee: J Simpson (Lancashire).