Tom Lawrence rekindles Derby play-off hopes in crucial win at Preston

Derby County came away with their first victory in a month, courtesy of a fine Tom Lawrence free-kick, to strengthen their play-off push after Preston North End’s Alan Browne missed a first-half penalty.

As Gary Rowett, the visiting manager, said: “An ugly performance – it didn’t matter how we played and how we got the result. I couldn’t give a monkeys if we didn’t look attractive. The win is a massive boost.”

Both sides were coming off demoralising Good Friday defeats: Derby endured a 4-1 home hammering by lowly Sunderland and Preston a defeat by the same score at Sheffield Wednesday. Those losses were hardly a boost in the bid to secure a top-six berth, with Derby in particular bother having failed to win in their previous eight games.

With only two points between the sides this was a chance for either team to kick-start a late run. Alex Neil, the Preston manager, made two changes, selecting Chris Maxwell in goal and Greg Cunningham at left-back, while Rowett stood down five Derby players as Andre Wisdom, Alex Pearce, David Nugent, Joe Ledley and Tom Huddlestone came in.

After an opening in which Preston threatened Scott Carson’s goal Nugent skimmed the ball along the turf into the area but the home team cleared. Neil’s men were instantly back in control. Callum Robinson, the left‑sided forward, hit a diagonal pass into Tom Barkhuizen but his first-time volley was tame. Neil’s men were proving more urgent. A Browne surge took him near to Carson and seconds later Sean Maguire had a shot blocked from close‑in by Ledley.

A cold day at a sparsely filled Deepdale was not being warmed by the fare on offer. Play got bogged down in the middle third, passes smacked into opposition and the ball hit air copiously. When Robinson roved down the left and sent in a cross that missed everyone for a goal-kick this was a fair summation of the contest.

A promising break from Derby foundered when Nugent found Matej Vydra and his control failed. At the other end a Robinson effort was saved well by Carson’s feet – the closest yet to a goal.

This changed on 36 minutes when Wisdom felled Browne in the area. The same player stepped up for the penalty but hit the ball on to Carson’s right post and wide. Rowett said: “I said to the players at half-time – we’ve got to snatch that now, the lifeline of a missed penalty.”

So they did via Lawrence’s impressive winner. Shortly after half-time the former Manchester United player fired his free-kick sweetly past Maxwell to send the travelling contingent into jubilation. It also left Nugent with a broken nose. “I’ve got a big lump – he caught me when he was trying to run away as we were celebrating. I’ll probably have two black eyes but it’s all worth it,” the No 9 said.

Derby came close to a second when Andreas Weimann’s cross was narrowly missed by a flailing Nugent. Better from Preston came when Barkhuizen forced a corner though they failed to capitalise. A golden chance for the equaliser arrived when the ball fell for Paul Huntington but from near the penalty spot the centre-back smacked the ball over.

Towards the end the Derby substitute Casey Palmer placed an attempt inches wide before Preston’s Paul Gallagher blasted high from yards out.

It left Neil ruing what might have been. “Results are what matters at this stage of the season,” he said. “Margins are so fine. We had the chance to unlock and change the match [with the penalty] and we didn’t take it.”