Preston 2, Norwich 0
RICK WAGHORN Two goals down — two own goals down, it could only be Norwich City.
First half own goals from Canary centre-halves Jason Shackell and Gary Doherty gifted Preston an easy 2-0 win at Deepdale this afternoon.
If Shackell's thumping header in off the underside of Robert Green's bar on 19 minutes was not comical enough the sight of Doherty extending the Lilywhites' advantage on 38 minutes with an inadvertent touch that trickled beyond a disbelieving Green merely completed a farcical first half in Lancashire which Preston ended 2-0 up having had just one shot on target.
After the break, mindful of cementing their own place in the play-offs with another three big points, Preston simply slung 10-men behind the ball and invited Norwich on in search of a consolation strike.
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Though the Canaries huffed and puffed it was all to little effect with their heart and their interest in this season probably having gone for good a few miles down the road at Burnley last month.
In all truth it is only City's consistent home form that has kept them in the contest for this long and for many - be they supporters, managers, players or reporters - the end of this season cannot come soon enough.
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As the two teams ran out for this afternoon's championship clash at Deepdale, no surprise as to who received the 'warmest' welcome - the returning Dickson Etuhu who was duly greeted with a sustained chorus of boos as his name was read out amongst City's starting line-up.
Whether it was the manner of his departure or the fact that in the first meeting between the two sides the former Preston midfielder managed to break the leg of his former team mate Adam Nowland, either way he was not Mr Popular in Lancashire this afternoon.
Etuhu's presence in the Norwich starting line-up owed much to the absence of Youssef Safri whose stomach problems ruled him out of today's long trip North.
It was the only change to the Norwich side that racked up their fifth straight home success against Leicester City last week.
Of equal interest was the fact that City kept faith with Leon McKenzie and Robert Earnshaw in attack and decided against reverting back to the 4-5-1 formation that had served them so well at Leeds United and for those first 15 minutes at Burnley before everything went so horribly wrong.
For the home side manager Billy Davies made two changes with Brett Ormerod returning in place of Chris Sedgewick while on-loan Norwich midfielder Jason Jarrett - ineligible for today's game - was replaced by Brian O'Neill.
The game was barely five minutes old before Etuhu made his presence felt with a late lunge across O'Neill's thighs which prompted a furious response from the Preston player.
On other occasions Etuhu may easily have found his way into the referee's book but fortunately Mr Fletcher was in a generous mood and opted instead for a stiff lecture.
The only real chance of note had come moments earlier when O'Neill had drifted an early free-kick into the Canary box where Ormerod was granted a free header which he could only direct gently back into the waiting arms of Robert Green.
Given Norwich's wretched experiences on their travels, hopes of the Canaries picked up their first away success of 2006 were not exactly helped by the sight of McKenzie gingerly limping out of the contest with barely 10 minutes gone.
The Canary striker fell heavily on his hip area following a challenge from Claude Davis. For a minute or so it looked as if McKenzie might be in a position to continue only for him to signal to the bench that his game was over.
On came Jonatan Johansson to partner Earnshaw as Worthington stuck firmly to his 4-4-2 game plan.
Norwich's best moment of the early exchanges arrived in the 12th minute when Huckerby swung a deep free-kick towards the far post where Doherty rose highest with a header back into the danger area.
Preston keeper Carlo Nash and his full-back Tye Mears then managed between them to send the ball spinning off for a corner with Mears being flattened by his keeper in the process.
Unfortunately from the subsequent corner City failed to clear the ball beyond the first man and the chance of an early strike was lost.
With McKenzie having departed after just 10 minutes through injury so you sense that this may be a long afternoon in Lancashire - it certainly seemed that when Jason Shackell managed to put the home side ahead with an extraordinary own goal.
The City centre-half appeared to have Paul McKenna's 20th minute corner comfortably covered as he rose unmarked for a regulation header clear. Instead, somehow, he managed to send a thumping header in off the underside of the Norwich bar beyond a startled Green.
In fairness Norwich weren't the only team with injury problems as O'Neill disappeared in the 26th minute after failing to shrug off the knock he sustained in a challenge with Etuhu.
By that stage a scrappy, ill-tempered contest had its first booking with Adam Drury seeing yellow after his challenge on Ormerod caught the referee's attention.
City's afternoon turned to farce in the 38th minute when Preston added a second - this time via a Gary Doherty own goal.
With the ball bobbling over Drury's foot away on the left it enabling Simon Wally to whip a dipping cross toward the edge of the City six-yard box.
Doherty was alive to the danger and moved across the former Ipswich man and stretched out a big boot to whip the ball off his toes.
All he succeeded in doing, however, was deflecting the ball agonisingly wide of the diving Green as it rolled slowly on and inside the city keeper's left-hand post.
Two goals down - two own goals down, it could only be Norwich City.
With Preston finding themselves in the curious position of being two goals up having had just one shot on target, manager Davies was forced into his second change of the afternoon in the 44th minute when Stewart mysteriously disappeared down the tunnel to be replaced eventually by David Hibbert.
In fairness on the balance on play Preston probably deserved to be slightly ahead - particularly given that Norwich had failed to register a shot of any particularly note but it was still rough justice on the Canaries to find themselves two goals adrift at the break - and both of them from the head and the boot of the two City centre-halves.
Half-time: Preston 2, Norwich 0.
With both sides struggling to find any degree of momentum or, indeed, enthusiasm in the second period Norwich did at least force the first corner of the second period when Huckerby, Drury and Johansson combined well away on the left and forced Preston into a hasty defensive clearance.
From the resulting corner, however, City's hopes of prising their way back into the contest proved short-lived as Shackell was penalised for pushing his marker.
Norwich did at least muster one half-heated effort wide when Doherty met Earnshaw's 51 minute free-kick with a sharp header that angled a good five yards wide.
As for Preston, two goals to the good thanks to Norwich's first half generosity they opted to defend their lead and more often than not could be found simply heaving long balls forward for loan striker Hibbert to chase. It was not, in short, the greatest game to watch.
A rare moment of quality - indeed a rare moment of any note - arrived in the 66th minute when Preston full-back Mears tried his luck with a dipping shot from 30-yards that skimmed the roof of Green's net. It was Preston's first effort on Green's goal in the second half as they happily sat back on their 2-0 advantage and let Norwich do all the running.
In the 69th minute city had another set piece opportunity this time from a left-wing free-kick which Huckerby swung deep into the waiting arms of Nash.
At the other end Preston came closer to adding to the scoreline when Hibbert nipped in just ahead of Shackell in the 70th minute only for his six-yard header to fly a yard wide.
Otherwise it was poor, end-of-season fare for the luckless Canary fans who had followed their team so far North.
With 12 minutes of normal time remaining Worthington made his second change of the afternoon as Ian Henderson replaced Carl Robinson - a move that found Hughes returning to midfield as Henderson went out wide on the right.
A minute later and Hughes almost sent Earnshaw in with an instinctive through pass that for once enabled the Welsh international to steal half a yard on his marker.
Unfortunately Earnshaw's attempted lob just sliced off his foot and a ball skied over the bar.
Norwich were, at least, offering more of a threat than their hosts and it needed a big block to deny Johansson after Preston failed to clear an 82nd minute corner.
Seconds later and Huckerby found himself taking aim with an ambitious volley on the edge of the Preston box. To the home supporters' delight he connected all to well with the ball as it flew high into the stand behind Nash's goal.
On the 83rd minute Preston made their third and final change of the afternoon as Kelvin Wilson replaced Simon Whaley.
With the Canaries throwing more bodies forward in the search of some sort of scant, late consolation Etuhu guided the ball wide for Henderson and his low cross eventually found its way to Earnshaw whose attempted flick goalward was halted by the linesman's offside flag.
Otherwise there was very little for the travelling Canary faithful to cheer about as Preston stoutly defended their two goal advantage.
In the 88th minute Shackell tried to make amends for his first half gaff with a 20-yard volley that - not surprisingly given the whole temper of this afternoon's proceedings - merely flew horribly wide of its intended target.
Seconds later and thankfully referee Fletcher brought the game to an end - the only consolation for the travelling Norwich supporters being the news from Portman Road where Ipswich's season was also ending on a predictably low note.
Result: Preston 2, Norwich 0.
t Preston North End - 22 Carlo Nash, 14 Tye Mears, 5 Youl Mawene, 4 Claude Davis, 2 Graham Alexander, 15 Simon Whaley, 8 Brian O'Neill, 16 Paul McKenna, 9 Patrick Agyemang, 31 Marcus Stewart, 17 Brett Ormerod. Subs: 12 Gavin Ward, 21 David Hibbert, 7 Chris Sedgwick, 23 Lewis Neal, 28 Kelvin Wilson.
t Norwich City - 1 Robert Green, 5 Craig Fleming, 3 Adam Drury, 27 Gary Doherty, 4 Jason Shackell, 17 Andy Hughes, 33 Carl Robinson, 20 Dickson Etuhu, 6 Darren Huckerby, 10 Robert Earnshaw, 14 Leon McKenzie. Subs: 21 Paul Gallacher, 16 Simon Charlton, 24 Jurgen Colin, 22 Ian Henderson, 11 Jonatan Johansson.
t Referee - Mick Fletcher (Worcestershire).