Tom Lawrence’s long-range free-kick finally ended Derby’s alarming slump, strengthening their play-off ambitions in the process, as Gary Rowett’s side won for the first time since the start of February.
The fact Derby still remain in the top six is something of a shock, given their struggles since that win over Brentford on 3 February, but the timing of their return to winning ways could prove significant as the season enters the business end of its final month.
Preston, whose own play-off aspirations suffered a major blow in this reverse, missed a first-half penalty to add to their frustrations. And they were further aggrieved when Tom Barkhuizen was judged to have pushed over David Nugent by referee Tony Harrington on 53 minutes, presenting Derby with their decisive free-kick 22 yards out.
Lawrence’s shot was impressive enough but still needed a slight deflection off a Preston defender to beat keeper Chris Maxwell, who just managed to place his fingertips on the ball as it flew past him.
The home side, looking to recover from the disappointment of a 4-1 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday on Friday, were handed the perfect opportunity to settle first-half nerves when they were on the fortunate end of a 37th minute penalty decision.
Derby full-back Andre Wisdom was judged to have barged Alan Browne aside as they tussled for the ball inside the visitors’ area, a harsh-looking decision but one which handed the Preston midfielder the chance to hand his side the lead.
But, after veteran keeper Scott Carson tested the penalty taker’s nerves by stalling ahead of the kick, Browne’s shot scraped the outside of the left-hand post and flew harmlessly wide.
On balance, Alex Neil’s team would probably have been value for a slender first-half lead, given their ambitious play and the number of times they penetrated into the Derby area.
Seeking a place in the to flight for the first time in 57 years, Preston’s defeat at Hillsborough had the look of a costly reverse, given the competitive nature of the competition for play-off places this season. And it emphasised the need to beat a struggling Derby team, without a win in eight games and still reeling from their stunning 4-1 home defeat to last-placed Sunderland three days earlier.
From the 16th minute, when Paul Gallagher’s shot was deflected behind for a corner, the hosts were on the front foot, nobody more so than attacking midfielder Callum Robinson who was involved in most of their more promising moments.
Robinson saw a shot well saved by Carson’s outstretched boot and then just missed the target with both a header and a shot as Derby were limited to trying to catch out Preston on the break.
Yet Maxwell in the home goal had little to do in the first period – Derby’s best moment a superb Nugent pass which played Matej Vydra clean in on goal only for him to fail to control cleanly on his chest. But the visitors, and Lawrence in particular, were far more clinical with their first meaningful chance, and the opening goal, soon after the restart.
Nugent almost added a second soon after, as he slid in to try to connect with an Andreas Weimann cross and substitute Kasey Palmer rolled a shot inches beyond the far post as Derby weathered late Preston pressure.
Paul Huntington, Louis Moult and, most notably, Gallagher all failed to hit the target from promising positions while Carson caught a powerful late shot from Billy Bodin to preserve the win.
Preston (4-2-3-1): Maxwell; Fisher, Huntington, B Davies, Cunningham; Pearson, Gallagher; Barkhuizen (Bodin 73), Browne (Moult 63), Robinson (Johnson 79); Maguire. Subs (not used) Rudd, Clarke, Harrop, Earl.
Derby (4-2-3-1): Carson; Wisdom, Pearce, C Davies, Baird; Huddlestone, Ledley; Weimann, Vydra (Palmer 73), Lawrence (Hanson 88); Nugent (Jerome 90). Subs: Roos, Forsyth, Keogh, Thomas.
Referee: T Harrington