City 0, Preston 0
The referee infamous for awarding the ‘goal that never was’ added a couple of seemingly ‘phantom’ red cards to his portfolio at Valley Parade last night.
Stuart Attwell will forever be haunted by that Reading effort at Watford six years ago. Now he can expect an equally warm reception when he next appears in West Yorkshire.
His over-zealous reaction ensured that Kyel Bennett’s City debut lasted only 25 minutes before he was dismissed in a clash which also saw Preston opponent Neil Kilkenny follow.
What should have been dismissed as a minor midfield skirmish ended with both players facing three-game bans for ‘violent conduct’. To add to Bennett’s punishment, he will miss Saturday’s trip to his boyhood club Wolves.
The fact that the game was still an exciting spectacle, despite the referee, was credit to both sides. As goalless draws go, this one was a belter.
And while City’s wait for a home win reached a ninth game on the four-month anniversary of their last one, there was plenty to be pleased about.
While Bennett won’t look back too fondly on his first taste of City life, the same could not be said for Adam Reach on the left flank. His debut made him an instant crowd-pleaser with the Valley Parade faithful.
There was also the satisfying sight of Andrew Davies comfortably negotiating his first action since knee surgery in early October. Typically, his return played a significant role in a first clean sheet since November 2.
Phil Parkinson had heralded the game as a fresh start after his hectic activity in the transfer window. There was certainly a positive vibe about the place.
As well as a first glimpse of two of last week’s three loanees, Aaron Mclean also lined up for a home debut after his busy display at Sheffield United.
Only Gary Jones, who had instigated the Bramall Lane fightback ten days earlier, remained from that midfield.
Reach took over from the unfortunate Kyel Reid on the left flank and Bennett gave Garry Thompson a breather on the right – not that it will now last for long. Nathan Doyle returned alongside Jones, with the third loanee Chris Atkinson named on the bench.
But perhaps the most significant change saw the return of Davies, 115 days after his last game against Walsall. In that time City had managed just one win and one clean sheet – so the focus was on their defensive talisman straight away.
Despite numerous postponements elsewhere, the Valley Parade pitch looked remarkably well considering all the rain. But it was obviously soft in places, particularly the side in front of the dugouts.
Both City wingers were straight into the action as Bennett nutmegged Preston skipper John Welsh before feeding Mclean. His cross missed intended target James Hanson but Reach was behind him to fire into the side-netting.
The swirling rain made the conditions tricky and there was little pattern to the early stages. Josh Brownhill tried to use the slick surface to test Jon McLaughlin, who twice saved comfortably.
Bennett teed up Mclean for a snap-shot 12 yards out but the ball would not come down for the striker, who could only fire into the ground.
But the game exploded midway through the first half when both teams were sensationally reduced to ten men.
Bennett fouled Kilkenny on the halfway line and they had a bit of a nibble at each other on the floor. Both appeared to shove each other as they got up, with the former Leeds man falling to the floor.
It looked to be nothing more than a bout of ‘handbags’ but Attwell immediately reached for his red card to dismiss the City debutant.
As players from both sides rushed over to join the scrum, he also sent Kilkenny on his way. Once again, an official had taken centre stage.
With an extra edge suddenly injected into the game, Preston should have grabbed the lead. Scott Laird’s cross was missed by Joe Garner but strike partner Paul Gallagher somehow managed to hit the post from no more than a couple of yards out.
Laird skewed an ambitious attempt well wide before City bounced back with two efforts from Doyle. That lifted the crowd – as did a couple of positive runs from Reach, eagerly looking to fill the big boots left by the injured Reid.
The young Middlesbrough winger had promised to whip crosses in for fun and was keeping his word, picking out Mclean, whose header was punched theatrically away by the flying Declan Rudd in Preston’s goal.
The second half began at a furious pace with chances at both ends.
A careless mistake from Matthew Bates gifted possession to Gallagher but Brownhill’s shot from the edge of the box was straight at McLaughlin.
Straight away Rudd denied Mclean’s response before Hanson flicked over the bar from a corner.
Both sides were chasing the win as the reduced numbers gave them more room to play. Reach was certainly trying to cover plenty of it – and Davies even appeared on City’s left wing to deliver a cross.
On the other side, Stephen Darby was doing an excellent job up and down the flank left vacant by Bennett’s early exit.
But City had another escape when Preston struck woodwork for a second time. The lively Brownhill left McLaughlin clutching thin air with a cracking left-foot drive that smacked against the post.
It may not have hit the heights of the thriller at Deepdale in October but there was plenty of entertainment and Hanson’s effort on the turn took a touch before bouncing just the wrong side of the post.
Garner did have the ball in City’s net with a close-range volley but the wild celebrations on the pitch – and from the Preston dugout – were cut short by the assistant’s flag for offside.