Joey Barton boosts Burnley back into pole position
Joey Barton's deflected free-kick after six minutes at Deepdale returned Burnley to the top of the Sky Bet Championship by sealing a 1-0 win over Lancashire rivals Preston.
The 33-year-old's third goal of the season was diverted beyond a flat-footed Chris Kirkland by Alan Browne's head as the Clarets extended their unbeaten run to 21 league games and amped up the pressure on Middlesbrough and Brighton, who they now lead by one and three points respectively.
It was revealed this week that midfielder Barton had been voted the fourth best player in the division by opposing managers, behind team-mate and eventual winner Andre Gray. Both players were brought to Turf Moor in the campaign's opening few weeks.
Gray's 24 goals, 22 of which have come with the Clarets, have grabbed the attention but free-agent Barton looks a class above at this level and his capture will prove to be an astute bit of business by the Championship club if he can carry Sean Dyche's side across the line.
There may have been a degree of fortune in the early winner from the former QPR midfielder, but he was at the heart of everything in an opening half-hour when the visitors threatened to run amok as Simon Grayson's decision to utilise a 3-5-2 formation backfired.
The Clarets made inroads down the right flank in particular and George Boyd fired a warning shot wide after 34-year-old goalkeeper Kirkland failed to get good distance when punching Matt Lowton's cross away.
The veteran was unable to do anything with Barton's free-kick from 30 yards out which was diverted past the North End goalkeeper by the head of Browne, who was standing in the wall.
Some of the visiting support spilled onto the pitch and it was a surprise that the extra stewards then drafted in were not monitoring more goal celebrations in the following minutes.
Sam Vokes narrowly missed Gray's fizzing cross across the six-yard box, the latter almost steered one Barton free-kick into the top corner and Ben Mee flicked another set piece just wide.
A pair of blocks denied goal-bound efforts from Scott Arfield and Gray before Grayson finally decided to dispense with his system and revert to a flat back four.
North End looked more comfortable in that template and displayed a bit more fight, too, as Joe Garner and Lowton got into a stoppage-time scuffle.
For all Burnley's dominance it remained 1-0 at the break, as it did early in the second period despite the frame of Kirkland's goal being struck twice in quick succession.
Gray's sweetly-struck half-volley came off the England cap's near post and while the initial danger was cleared, Boyd landed an effort from distance on the top of the crossbar from the second wave of Clarets attack.
Arfield and Calum Woods traded long-range efforts wide before Lowton had to block from Jermaine Beckford after the striker had cleverly flicked the ball over Michael Keane's head.
For once Barton made the wrong decision when firing a shot into Kirkland's legs from near the byline after he had rolled Browne and looked set to roll the ball across the six-yard box.
Burnley's wastefulness did not look like coming back to haunt them, though, as Preston were creating little at the other end - Tom Heaton saving from Daniel Johnson on one of the rare occasions he was called upon, while substitute Callum Robinson's volley deep into stoppage time went over.
The victory leaves Burnley, and possibly Barton, ever closer to a top-flight return with Dyche's side having just two fixtures to fulfil.