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Report: Preston North End 1-1 Bristol City

Aaron Wilbraham’s 20th goal of the season ensured Bristol City left the home of nearest challengers Preston North End with their eight-point lead still intact at the Sky Bet League One summit.

The hosts had their noses in front when Jermaine Beckford tapped in on 59 minutes but could only maintain their slim advantage for four minutes, as Wilbraham headed his way to the striker’s milestone for the first time in his career.

Steve Cotterill named an unchanged team following a memorable 3-0 victory over Swindon Town in the M4 derby at Ashton Gate.

It was a day with all the makings of a big occasion, with the top two fighting it out on an excellent Deepdale pitch in front of a lively atmosphere in the Lancashire sunshine.

City enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges, with neither side prepared to sit back despite a draw arguably suiting both parties in the long run.

Korey Smith and Bailey Wright traded hefty tackles to set the tone, before a disguised free kick routine set up Marlon Pack to curl a low shot around the wall which just kissed the side-netting on its way past the near post.

It was a moment which brought the travelling masses to their feet thinking their team were in front, before their hopes were dashed again five minutes later by a fine piece of goalkeeping.

When Joe Bryan checked back on his right foot to cross, Kieran Agard flicked on at the near post with Sam Johnstone’s view in the Preston goal obstructed by the poaching Wilbraham.

Johnstone could not react until the last possible second and did well to keep the visitors at bay before Jack King lashed the ball to safety.

City had done well in keeping one of the division’s most lethal strike duos at bay, with just one routine save required from Frank Fielding to keep out Joe Garner inside the first half an hour.

But Beckford, Garner’s partner in crime, offered a further warning with an overhead kick towards the near post to keep the goalkeeper on his toes.

Former Blackburn Rovers team-mates Fielding and Garner would come together again when City’s last line of defence raced from his line and seemingly got the slightest touch on the ball to ensure referee Robert Madley signalled only a corner and not a penalty, much to the disgust of the locals.

Twice Fielding had to make important punches inside his own six-yard box as Preston ended the half on top.

There was no danger of things tightening up at the start of the second period as both sides threatened over within four minutes of the restart.

First Scott Laird slipped the ball inside for Daniel Johnson, who broke with purpose from midfield and took the ball neatly in his stride before blazing his shot over the crossbar from 20 yards.

But at the other end City would come within inches of a priceless opener.

A typical Luke Ayling surge out of defence supplied James Tavernier in space on the right, whose cross towards the back post was met by Wilbraham.

The veteran striker must have thought he had chalked up goal number 20 of the season, only for Johnstone to tip his header against the underside of the bar and back into play before Luke Freeman’s shot on the follow-up was blocked.

City were enjoying their best spell of the game and Agard was agonisingly close to breaking the deadlock before the hosts edged in front on 59 minutes.

Cotterill’s men, so often so effective from set-pieces, nearly did more damage from a dead ball when Aden Flint rose highest to nod Pack’s left-wing corner down towards the far post but just fractionally beyond the reach of City’s diving striker.

It felt like a potentially defining moment when Beckford pounced from the very next attack to send Deepdale into a frenzy.

When Paul Gallagher was given time to take the ball down on the far side of the six-yard box, the Scotsman scuffed a left-footed shot across goal perfectly into the path of Beckford, who gleefully tapped in from close range.

But the Preston pandemonium would last no longer than four minutes as Wilbraham did find his landmark strike on the biggest day of the season so far.

Another Pack set-piece was kept alive by Derrick Williams, who headed the ball down into the ground where it bounced up invitingly for Flint.

The big defender nodded the ball perfectly back across goal for the City skipper to head home in front of a jubilant away end.

But the league leaders were not content to sit on a point which would preserve their healthy advantage at the top, as Agard forced Johnstone into a sprawling save down to his right.

The way in which the striker rushed to the touchline when replaced by Jay Emmanuel-Thomas moments later was a statement of intent in itself with eight minutes to play.

It had been a spectacle befitting the occasion between two sides increasingly likely to face each other again as Championship clubs next season.