THERE is a glorious water feature statue outside Preston North End’s home of Tom Finney, aquaplaning his way down the wing in his Fifties heyday.
Ahead of Marcelo Bielsa’s first visit to Deepdaleon Tuesday night, this re-enactment of an iconic image featuring one of English football’s greatest talents at a sodden Stamford Bridge seemed an appropriate symbol of Leeds United’s attempts to end a 15-year absence from the Premier League.
Two defeats in the last three games and the surrendering of second place to Sheffield United meant Leeds’s bid to waltz back into the top flight had become bogged down.
By full-time, however, United had glided back into the automatic promotion places with all the guile and grace of the man fondly known as the ‘Preston Plumber’ at his very best.
Patrick Bamford’s second-half double was enough to earn Bielsa’s men a crucial three points that leaves the Blades needing a response on Wednesday night at Birmingham City.
It was entirely fitting that the £7m summer signing from Middlesbrough should strike the killer blows.
He had been involved in what proved to be the game’s defining moment, the dismissal of Ben Pearson early in the second half.
Bamford, having cleverly stayed in his own half until the pass was played, had darted to within 30 yards of the home goal when Pearson dragged him down.
The North End defender had been booked early on for clattering into Jack Harrison but referee Robert Jones brandished a straight red card to leave the visitors with 41 minutes to make their numerical advantage pay.
They took just 13 of those minutes. Bamford, the striker who had endured such a miserable time in front of goal during United’s last two outings against Millwall and Birmingham City, broke the deadlock with a quite magnificent strike.
Latching on to a loose ball 25 yards out, the Leeds striker had only one thing in mind. Declan Rudd, the Preston goalkeeper, knew this but was still unable to get anywhere near a drive that was destined for the net from the moment it left Bamford’s left boot.
Even the most one-eyed among the home fans in the 18,090 crowd could not deny the opening goal had been coming.
Leeds had just about been the better side in the opening 45 minutes but neither Rudd nor Kiko Casilla had been called upon to make a save worthy of the name.
As soon as Preston were down to ten men, however, the visitors took a firm grip of proceedings.
Just a couple of minutes after Pearson’s departure, Rudd had a fortunate escape when he fumbled a cross from Tyler Roberts.
Bamford slid in to try and nudge the ball over the line but the Preston goalkeeper was able to recover before being awarded a free-kick by referee Jones.
The Leeds striker was then beaten to a through ball by Rudd, who moments later denied Bamford again with a flying save after the home defence had been opened up.
Once ahead, Leeds continued to press and Luke Ayling was unfortunate to see his searing left foot shot strike the post before bouncing to safety.
Jack Harrison had a shot that squirmed wide before United killed off any hopes of a Preston fightback 14 minutes from time.
Mateusz Klich, having been played down the right flank, picked out Bamford with an exquisite cross and he did the rest from eight yards out with a bullet header.
Suddenly, all the frustration of Saturday’s defeat at St Andrews and the Blades’ own victory at Deepdale ebbed away as the 5,600 travelling fans held an impromptu party.
Bamford should have bagged the matchball in the final minute when played clear. However, a moment’s hesitation from the striker coupled with the determination of Ben Davies meant the chance was soon snatched away.
Not that it mattered to Leeds or their overjoyed travelling army of fans, who rightly gave Bamford a standing ovation moments later when he was substituted.
It was fully deserved, Bamford’s willingness to give everything for the Leeds cause being illustrated even in a first half that was long on attacking ambition from both teams but lacking in gilt-edged opportunities.
This was best illustrated in an 18th minute passage of play that began with Bamford being the man to avert the danger deep in United territory after Callum Robinson had been released down the right flank by Daniel Johnson.
Ten seconds later, Bamford was on the end of a sweeping Leeds move involving Jack Harrison and Mateusz Klich only for his shot to fly over the crossbar.
Such determination got its reward via those two second half goals and a return to the summit of the Championship that Sheffield United will be determined to end on Wednesday night.
Preston North End: Rudd; Fisher, Storey, Davies, Earl; Browne, Pearson, Johnson Nmecha (Stockley87); Robinson (Moult 59), Maguire (Ledson 70). Unused substitutes: Crowe, Rafferty, Ginnelly, Huntington.
Leeds United: Casilla; Ayling, Jansson, Cooper, Alioski; Phillips; Hernandez, Klich, Roberts (Forshaw 83), Harrison (Berardi 77); Bamford (Roofe 89). Unused substitutes: Peacock-Farrell, Dallas, Shackleton, Stevens.
Referee: R Jones (Merseyside).