THE BEGINNING of the end or end of the beginning?
Barely a quarter of a way through the League One season, United manager Danny Wilson will insist it is neither. But events at Deepdale, where his team showcased both the finest and most frustrating sides of their character, could prove a defining moment of its season.
Substitute Lee Williamson delivered the coup-de-grace 16 minutes from time after Preston had twice dragged themselves level before completing his brace during the closing stages. But Matt Phillips was the architect of this victory with a inspirational display which deserved to have been rewarded with a hat-trick rather than two smartly taken goals.
Recruited on a month loan from Blackpool to inject some pace into United’s sometimes pedestrian midfield, the youngster illustrated why Wilson was so keen to secure his services by tormenting Preston’s rearguard.
His first effort, after just four minutes, set the tone for an absorbing match.
Nevertheless, despite watching United secure a much-needed triumph, Wilson will have been concerned with certain aspects of their performance.
Not least the fact that, but for several lapses in concentration, the margin and manner of United’s victory would have been much more comfortable indeed.
Wilson, whose appointment earlier this year provoked hostile scenes among some sections of the support, nevertheless enjoyed something of a honeymoon period at Bramall Lane after winning four of his first five games in charge. But having seen United briefly slip-out of the top six, culminating in Sunday’s derby stalemate, he crossed the Pennines acknowledging that a positive outcome was required to restore confidence and belief.
Only a point and a place separated the teams before the start of this re-arranged fixture with similar issues facing them off the pitch too.
Both were relegated from the Championship last season. Both are expected to make immediate returns.
But while Wilson and his counterpart Phil Brown have plenty of top-flight experience, they are also aware that those very same players are a huge strain on the resources of a League 1 club. One of those - Preston striker Neil Mellor - missed this contest through injury but Iain Hume did feature.
A first-half spat with Neill Collins apart, he remained on the periphery until caressing the ball beyond Steve Simonsen after Phillips had scored the second of his two goals.
Wilson, who admitted his players were left drained after relinquishing a two goal lead during last weekend’s draw, responded by making a series of changes to his starting 11.
Harry Maguire, who made his full debut at this stadium six months ago, once again partnered Neill Collins at the heart of United’s defence just hours after putting pen to paper on a new long-term contract.
But it was the decision to unleash new signings Clarke and Phillips which reaped instant rewards with the latter producing a delightful feint and finish to thread the ball between goalkeeper and near post.
With Stephen Quinn flicking a header just over the crossbar soon after, Brown cut a frustrated figure as he paced his technical area.
The former Hull City chief’s demeanour deteriorated further when only a perfectly executed tackle from Brian McLean prevented Phillips from pouncing again.
Indeed, such was United’s superiority during the opening exchanges, that 20 minutes had passed before Preston produced their first serious effort although Jamie Proctor’s header floated wide.
Hume saw a free-kick deflected high and wide after Nick Montgomery was cautioned for a 26th minute foul on Danny Mayor and Quinn quickly followed his captain into Colin Webster’s notebook for berating the assistant referee.
Yet, for all United’s early dominance, Clarke Carlisle clawed Preston back on level terms when his header bounced off the turf and deceived Simonsen.
United, though, have developed an obstinate streak under Wilson’s stewardship and five minutes before the interval they edged back in front again when Phillips was sent scampering through.
With Ian Holloway watching from the stand, Clarke seized his opportunity to impress with a wonderful piece of skills immediately after the interval which left two markers trailing in his wake and Collins poised to tap in from close range until an off-side flag was raised.
Mayor scuffed wide when Preston briefly roused themselves but Montgomery illustrated the confidence coursing though his veins when, despite being tasked with anchoring the midfield, he twice tried his luck from distance after dancing towards Turner’s penalty area.
Nevertheless, one moment of carelessness was all it took to gift Preston another equaliser when Hume was afforded enough time and space in the box to score a trademark effort on the turn just past the hour.
The Canada international’s intervention changed the whole dynamics of the contest with Brown’s men, previously fractious and reticent, now surging forward with abandon.
Simonsen produced a fine save to deny Mayor before Williamson ensured United prevailed when first Turner fumbled his shot across the line before a low drive on the stroke of full-time left him grasping at thin air.