Mark Perrow reports from Ashton Gate
City fell to a second 1-0 defeat in eight days, losing at home in the league for the first time since February in the process.
Callum Robinson’s 28th minute goal was enough for fellow promotion hopefuls Preston North End, who turned in a disciplined away performance to end a three-game losing streak of their own.
City pressed and pressed for an equaliser, but the Lilywhites had all the answers and keeper Thorsten Stuckmann was rarely troubled in the visiting goal.
Steve Cotterill made two changes to his side defeated in the league for the first time in eight months in the M4 derby at Swindon Town last time out.
Mark Little recovered to take his place at right wing-back with Scott Wagstaff dropping to the bench, while Marlon Pack replaced the suspended Wade Elliott in midfield.
The visitors included former City midfielder Neil Kilkenny in their starting line-up, who chanced his arm from 30 yards in the opening exchanges with a shot well struck on his left foot but comfortably held by the stooping Frank Fielding.
City have made a habit of steamrolling teams in the early minutes of matches, particularly at Ashton Gate, but it was North End showing the first signs of intent.
When winger Chris Humphrey broke free down the right flank, it required the covering Luke Ayling to snuff out the danger before City scrambled the ball to safety.
Within seconds Luke Freeman was driving at the Preston defence, committing yellow shirts and sliding the ball in behind for Aaron Wilbraham, whose first touch was perfect to round goalkeeper Thorsten Stuckmann, but he was unable to wrap his left foot around his shot which disappeared wide of the near post, as a gilt-edged chance came and went inside nine minutes.
It was typically open stuff, and Joe Garner soon enjoyed his first sight of goal in meeting Robinson’s cross only to send his header straight into the arms of Fielding.
Freeman was looking lively and his set-piece delivery was typically on the money. Wilbraham glanced City’s first corner past the post, before Aden Flint peeled away to the back post and steered a clever side-foot back across goal which only just evaded Stuckmann’s right-hand upright.
But Preston were proving just as threatening. Defender Paul Huntington forced Fielding into another save, this time from a right-wing corner, before Robinson struck the opener at the end of a clinical breakaway on 28 minutes.
It was Kilkenny who started the move, spotting the run of Garner out towards the right flank. With Flint dragged out of position, Garner found Humphrey on the overlap whose low cross was easily converted by Robinson at the far post.
City had fallen behind at home for the first time since the opening Ashton Gate fixture of the league campaign, but Joe Bryan and Kieran Agard both showed the sort of perseverance required to haul Cotterill’s side level.
First Bryan did remarkably well to keep the ball alive with a cross from the byeline, before Agard won his tussle in the box only to be met by the burly frame of Stuckmann at close quarters.
Meanwhile, Preston’s counter-attacking intentions were proving well suited to being in a winning position as City were nearly caught short at the back again when Humphrey’s diagonal pass was laid off by Garner for Robinson, whose shot was tame when more conviction might have doubled the visitors’ advantage before half-time.
City’s response after the interval was to dominate straight from the off. Agard was presented with a chance almost immediately but slipped at the vital moment, while Ayling and Little both embarked on positive bursts into the box without quite finding the right final ball.
Freeman’s corners were mounting up, with a variety of deliveries all dealt with by the visitors before one into the heart of the penalty area looked perfect for Flint only for the big defender to send his header just a fraction off target.
Preston had been forced into a premature change at the break, withdrawing top scorer Garner, and his 37-year-old replacement Kevin Davies could hardly have wished for a better chance from Robinson’s square pass across the box, but the veteran’s side-foot shot was easily smothered by the stooping Fielding.
Cotterill made his first move on 69 minutes, bringing on Jay Emmanuel-Thomas and Todd Kane for Freeman and Little respectively, but City were hardly bombarding the Preston box.
Marlon Pack’s attempted curler from 25 yards was only just lacking the necessary bend to arc inside Stuckmann’s far post, but also demonstrated the difficulty City were having in finding gaps behind a deep and well-drilled Preston backline.
Bobby Reid, recently recalled from his loan spell at Plymouth Argyle, was given the last five minutes to create something in Cotterill’s final throw of the dice.
There was late drama as Fielding charged forward for a stoppage-time corner, but Preston’s resilience was admirable as Simon Grayson’s side escaped with three big points in the promotion race.