A well-taken first-half goal from Preston striker Joe Garner was enough to consign Leyton Orient to their first league defeat at Brisbane Road this season, which also saw them concede the top spot in League One – a position they have held since their opening day win over Carlisle United.
The visitors took a deserved 1-0 lead in to the break but Orient came out fighting in the second half and could have snatched a dramatic equaliser in the closing seconds of the game when substitute Robbie Simpson found himself one-on-one with Preston’s Declan Rudd, but the striker couldn’t quite squeeze the ball past the visiting keeper.
It was also the first time that the O’s have failed to score in a league match all season but they were up against a strong and determined Preston side who put in an impressive defensive performance on Saturday afternoon.
Orient came in to the match eager to stretch the 11-point gap between themselves and fourth-placed Preston, while the Lancashire club knew they needed to take something out of the game in order to keep up the pace with the league leaders in the race for promotion.
O’s boss Russell Slade made two changes from the midweek Johnstone’s Paint Trophy defeat to Stevenage, with striker Kevin Lisbie returning to the starting line-up for the first time since picking up an injury in the crucial league win over Peterborough two weeks ago. Left-back Gary Sawyer was the other man to come in to the team, with Jayden Stockley and Shaun Batt making way.
Meanwhile, visiting manager Simon Grayson made four changes – which included captain and ex-Bolton forward Kevin Davies coming back in – from the side that thumped Barnet 6-0 in the FA Cup last weekend.
It was an electric atmosphere inside Brisbane Road – the crowd of more than 7,000 was the highest seen here all season – with both sets of fans appreciating what significance a win for their side could bring come the end of the campaign.
And it was Preston who were quickest out of the blocks, threatening the home side’s goal four times in the opening 15 minutes; Paul Gallagher and club top-scorer Garner with two attempts each. However, Garner’s second attempt was the only one to find the target when he sent a tame header straight into the arms of Jamie Jones.
Despite being unable to force opposition goalkeeper Rudd in to a save in the first 20 minutes, Orient looked lively when going forward, with Lisbie and David Mooney – a partnership that had produced an incredible 25 goals coming in to this game – linking well and Dean Cox a constant threat down the left flank.
Orient were without star midfielder Romain Vincelot after the FA landed him with an extra one-match ban having ruled that he picked up a deliberate booking in the FA Cup tie with Southport last week in order to serve a suspension on Tuesday.
Marvin Bartley was doing a good job in deputising for the Frenchman but the O’s clearly lacked his energy and ability to press the opposition during the first half which allowed Preston to enjoy the lion’s share of possession.
And the Lancashire side took the lead on 33 minutes when Orient failed to adequately deal with a Chris Humphrey cross from the right, giving Keith Keane the opportunity to curl a second ball in to the box and this time Garner made a perfect connection with the ball, diverting a half-volley in to the top left corner of the net.
The goal rounded off a pacey counter-attack from the visitors just as Orient were enjoying their best spell of the half, making it even harder to take from an O’s perspective.
A scrappy remaining 15 minutes of the half where neither team looked likely to add to the scoreboard ensured the visitors went in to the break with a 1-0 advantage.
Preston started the second half in much the same vein as they did the first and it took a goal-saving challenge by Scott Cuthbert on Garner, who was about to release the trigger with a clear sight of goal, to spark the home side and fans into action.
The momentum in the game was beginning to shift and Slade looked to capitalise on this shortly after the hour-mark by sending Batt on in place of Sawyer. The move saw Moses Odubajo shifted to right-back while Batt, on nine goals so far this season, played ahead of him.
Orient continued in the ascendancy and skipper Nathan Clarke, playing against his brother Tom who was part of a five-man Preston defence today, sent a glancing header narrowly wide of the right-hand post soon after.
And the introduction of Mathieu Baudry on 70 minutes saw the home side step it up another gear still. The Frenchman has been sidelined through injury since the defeat to Coventry City at the end of last month and, having played at the heart of Orient’s defence so far this season, replaced Lloyd James in the middle of the park. James had been one the O’s better performers on the day but Baudry brought some much-needed energy to proceedings.
Batt had now moved over to the left flank where he went on a couple of mazy runs which caused havoc for the visitors, but he was unable to find a final ball worthy of opening up a resilient Preston rearguard.
Orient have been the most clinical finishers in League One so far this season, having scored in every match coming in to this game which is why there was a sense that they could pinch an equaliser right until the final whistle.
And the whole stadium must have thought that moment was about to arrive when, in the dying seconds of stoppage time, O’s substitute Robbie Simpson was sent clean through on goal. The striker managed to get a shot away with his right foot but his finish wasn’t good enough to find a way past Rudd in the Preston goal and was not able to beat a desperate Preston defence to the rebound.
It was almost the last kick of the match and it would have been a deserved equaliser for the O’s, however Preston had put in an excellent performance themselves, proving they will be right up there come the end of this season.
Slade and his men will now be keen to bounce back, as they have done after every minor setback suffered so far this season, when they travel to Swindon in the league next Saturday.
ORIENT: Jones, Omozusi, Cuthbert, Clarke (C), Sawyer (Batt, 62), Odubajo, James (Baudry, 70), Bartley, Cox, Mooney (Simpson, 80), Lisbie.
SUBS NOT USED: Larkins, Vanderhyde, Lasimant, Stockley.
BOOKINGS: Clarke (34) Cox (90+1)
PRESTON: Rudd, Keane, Clarke, Wright, Laird, Humphrey (Huntingdon, 89), Welsh, Gallagher (Kilkenny, 82), Garner, King, Davies.
SUBS NOT USED: Stuckmann, Brownhill, Holmes, Buchanan, Monakana.
GOALS: Garner (33)
BOOKINGS: Keane (41), Garner (43), Davies (90+1)
REFEREE: Keith Hill
ATTENDANCE: 7,124 (1,190)