Nigel Clough warned beforehand that last night’s visit to Deepdale represented the toughest challenge of a run of games which has pitted Sheffield United against the likes of Fulham and Nottingham Forest in recent weeks.
Those suspicions proved correct as Preston North End, who still harbour ambitions of securing automatic promotion to theChampionship next term, presented his team with arguably the most serious test of the former England international’s five-month reign.
That United, now unbeaten in 11 outings, departed having avoided a first defeat since February 1 said much about the spirit and cameraderie which now exists within their ranks.
It was not pretty and at times they were forced to survive on their wits.
But, although it marked the end of a 10-match winning sequence, last night’s result is likely to be among the most satisfying Clough has secured after taking charge of the South Yorkshire club in October.
It was certainly the most hard-fought with Neill Collins and Harry Maguire commanding at centre-half as United - who have not conceded a goal in eight League One matches - recorded a record eighth consecutive clean sheet.
Preston, fourth in the table, went about their business with the confidence and purpose which has prompted Simon Grayson to claim a top-two finish is still not beyond the realms of possibility this term.
Indeed, having dominated the first half both in terms of possession and chances created, they were justifiably aggreived not to have been awarded a penalty when Michael Doyle handled Bailey Wright’s powerful shot while Josh Brownhill struck the woodwork before Preston substitute Stuart Beavon also went close.
United face Yorkshire rivals Hull City in the FA Cup semi-finals next month and Steve Bruce, Clough’s counterpart at the KC Stadium, did not witness the visitors at their swashbuckling best.
But, throughout a contest where United were often on the back foot, he will have learned that resolute United possess substance as well as style.
An almost inpenetrable defence has been the driving force behind United’s surge up the League One table in recent weeks.
However, Preston required a matter of only 18 seconds to put that to the test when Craig Davies’ shot deceived Mark Howard before the former Blackpool goalkeeper recovered to smother at Joe Garner’s feet.
Despite a full debut for Kieron Freeman after arriving on loan from Derby County earlier this month, there was a familar look to United’s starting 11 with Jose Baxter, Stefan Scougall and Jamie Murphy all featuring after passing late fitness tests.
That allowed the visitors to quickly rediscover their poise following Howard’s early scare, although only Bob Harris’ timely block prevented Garner from opening the scoring with 28 minutes gone.
Preston, who entered the match unbeaten in eight outings, also possess a durable streak.
Indeed, until Conor Coady broke through, Grayson’s players continued to carry the greater threat.
Paul Gallagher, previously of United, sent a 14th-minute free-kick whistling just over the crossbar and danger man Garner inexplicably glancied wide after meeting Chris Humphrey’s centre soon afterwards.
Scougall thrust Preston on to the back foot with a driving run which took him from midfield to the edge of Declan Rudd’s until Tom Clarke intervened while Baxter’s slide-rule pass just evaded the young Scot following a more intricate move midway through the first period.
Grayson, previously of Leeds and Huddersfield Town, boasts an enviable reputation for constructing well-organised teams capable of grinding opponents down.
Maguire was forced to scramble clear when Gallagher fired another cross across Howard’s six yard box after Harris’ excellent block from Garner.
United thought they had broken the deadlock in the 32nd minute but Coady’s ‘goal’ was disallowed for offside.
Wright, the Preston North End captain, and Gallagher responded with Doyle, unbeknown to referee Geoff Eltringham, palming clear during a frantic scramble.
Clough’s players, having ridden their luck for long periods, grew in stature as the interval approached with Baxter and Scougall piecing together several promising passages of play in front of Rudd.
The departure of Harris due to injury saw Matt Hill enter the fray.
And he was immediately called upon to clear a deep cross from Gallagher which had sent Neill Collins backtracking towards his own goalline.
Hill failed to emerge after the interval with Ben Davies introduced as a makeshift full-back and only the width of Howard’s right-hand post prevented Brownhill from opening the scoring.
Garner should have claimed his 21st of the campaign but sliced wide after Humphrey had again made progress down the flank.
A poor clearance from Clarke nearly presented Murphy with the opportunity to test Rudd.
But, for the most part, the action continued to ebb towards Howard’s goal with substitute Beavon also seeing an attempt blocked by Doyle before Maguire saw his justified late appeal for a penalty waved away after appearing to be impeded hunting down a high ball.
PRESTON NORTH END: Rudd 6, Clarke 7, Wright 7, Humphrey 6 (Holmes 77), Gallagher 7, Garner 7, Buchanan 6, C Davies 6 (Beavon 77), Brownhill 6 (K Davies 85), Wiseman 6, Kilkenny 7. Not used: Stuckmann, Keane, Welsh, King.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Howard 7, Harris 6 (Hill, 41, 4) (Davies 46, 6), Maguire 7, Flynn 6, Doyle 6, Baxter 6 (Porter 74), Collins 7, Coady 6, Scougall 6, Murphy 6, Freeman 6. Not used: Miller, McGinn, Paynter, Long.
REFEREE: Geoff Eltringham (Co Durham).
CAUTIONS: Garner (63).
ATTENDANCE: Not given.