Nigel Clough insisted before kick-off that Preston North End would prove as tough a team as his Sheffield United side can expect to face in League One this term.
Simon Grayson, the former England international’s opposite number at Deepdale, paid the visitors a similar compliment in his matchday programme notes too.
So it was no surprise to see the opening exchanges of today’s fixture between two teams expected to be challenging for promotion next year, prove especially cagey with passes being sweopt across the respective back fours before a hopeful long ball forward was either shepherded to safety or flew straight out of play.
United, with Alcock failing to make an appearance, possessed a different dynamic to the one which had seen them win all of their last three fixtures en route to the North-West.
With Davies deputising at right-back, Jamal Campbell-Ryce was charged with providing the crosses for Michael Higdon to score. The two combined well in the sixth minute, Higdon barging King out of the way before releasing his colleague, but the United winger was eventually bundled over by Tom Clarke.
Seconds later, there were further signs this could prove a fruitful partnership.
Campbell-Ryce teased his way to the by-line and engineered enough space to whip a looping centre towards the far post. Higdon, climbing above his marker, met it well but Jones diverted his header around the post.
However, just as United were finding their rhythm, Preston seized control courtesy of Andy Little’s 11th minute goal.
Joe Garner and a clutch of United defenders all ran across his free-kick but failed to get a touch before the ball eventually ended-up in the back of Mark Howard’s net.
United quickly regained their sense with Jose Baxter, dropping deep to find pockets of space between the lines, and Campbell-Ryce testing Preston’s powers of concentration.
Grayson’s charges, though, looked more threatening when they also surged forward with plenty of men massing in support.
Still, midway through the opening period, United were inches away from drawing themselves level when Campbell-Ryce flashed another excellent centre into the danger area but Murphy, despite flinging himself towards it, could not get what would almost certainly have a been a decisive touch. Jamie Jones, the Preston goalkeeper, had been left horribly exposed by the flight path of Campbell-Ryce’s pass.
Garner sent a first-time effort just wide from long range after 32 minutes before being booked for catching Baxter’s face in the 33rd.
Campbell-Ryce pounced on a poor back pass soon four minutes later but could not lob Jones who had advanced off his line and, moments later, Howard turned away Humphrey’s powerful drive.
But, five minutes before the interval, Baxter underlined his quality by finding the back of the net with an angled shot from out towards the right hand corner of Jones’ area.
Although Baxter’s equaliser had taken a wicked deflection, it was just reward for an inventive performance in a deeper lying midfield role as Murphy, who had yet to really impose himself on proceedings, working closer to Higdon.
Preston, who withdrew Ben Davies at half-time with Calum Woods entering the fray, found themselves under pressure at the start of the second period with Campbell-Ryce their tormentor in chief. But it was United’s Ben Davies who sent a teasing ball spiralling towards Collins which Jones did well to collect.
Then, in the 51st minute, Davies tested the Preston goalkeeper again with a fearsome inswinging free-kick from the edge of the box.
The atmosphere insoide the stadium was electric as both sides went toe to toe.
Howard produced a fine flying save to deny the excellent Humphrey before King thought he had restored Preston’s advantage from a 56th minute corner but the ball, despite appearing to have been turned home, was deemed not to have crossed the line.
Jones produced an excellent save, scrambling backwards before parrying behind, to deny Davies before Higdon, meeting Campbell-Ryce’s cross on the edge of the six yard box, saw his header cleared off the line.
Preston made their second change of the afternoon just past the hour when Hugill replaced Brownhill.
Howard demonstrated excellent reactions to deny Hugill at the near post in the 71st minute and, 60 seconds later, Campbell-Ryce was cautioned for a foul.
Gallagher came on for Little in the 76th minute before United made their first change when, less than sixty seconds later, Higdon made way for McNulty.
Then, Baxter departed during another change of personnel with Wallace sent into action.
His first contribution was a barging run along the flank which was only halted when a defender hauled him back.
Then, Gallagher was foiled by another good save from Howard; this time at the foot of his post.
Harris replaced Doyle in the 90th minute.
Preston North End: Jones, Wiseman, Clarke, Humphrey, Kilkenny, Garner, Little, B Davies, King, Brownhill, Browne. Substuitutes: Stuckmann, Wright, K Davies, Gallagher, Woods, Hayhurst, Hugill.
Sheffield United: Howard, Basham, Doyle, Murphy, Baxter, Collins, B Davies, McGahey, McEveley, Campbell-Ryce, Higdon. Substitutes: Turner, Harris, Wallace, Flynn,McNulty, McGinn, Reed.