The opening home friendly workout of four scheduled for Edgeley Park saw the Hatters edged out by the odd goal in three against Preston, but having matched North End’s Championship squad for long spells of the game.
All three goals arrived within 13 first-half minutes – as Jason Oswell followed up his first successful County strike at Altrincham four days earlier by netting again in SK3 to give the Hatters the lead, before the visitors scored twice with just over half an hour on the clock.
County’s starting line-up featured just one change from the side that had taken to the field against Altrincham – with Chris Smalley replacing Stephen O’Halloran on the left side of a three-player defence. Sam Minihan, meanwhile, was named among the substitutes, after missing out at Moss Lane due to a recurrence of his groin injury.
Preston’s last visit to EP, back in the late summer of 2010, had seen the Lilywhites hand out a five-goal thrashing in what proved to be County’s final League Cup-tie (at least for now…). Almost seven years on, the visitors started off in bullish mood again – with Callum Robinson forcing Ben Hinchliffe to parry a pair of well-struck efforts and firing two others respectively just high and wide of the home goal.
But after 26 minutes, the Hatters took the lead after Darren Stephenson broke free into the visitors’ box. The winger was felled by Preston captain and former County defender Paul Huntington – but, with the ball still in play and the advantage given, Oswell pounced to rifle home from close range.
County almost went further ahead seven minutes later, when Jimmy Ball and Stephenson had goal-bound shots blocked in quick succession. But, instead, the Hatters found themselves pegged back, as Preston broke away to equalise. Ben Pringle’s cross-field pass from the left found Tom Barkhuizen, whose low delivery to the edge of the area was converted by Robinson.
And six minutes from the interval, the Hatters were caught unawares as Robinson turned provider with a delicious through-ball that Barkhuizen matched in quality with a chipped finish over Hinchliffe from 12 yards out.
HALF-TIME: County 1 (Oswell, 26), Preston 2 (Robinson, 33; Barkhuizen, 39).
Preston sent out a new outfield upon the resumption – albeit another strong one that comprised senior players almost in entirety. But the Hatters were to go closest before the hour-mark, as Stephenson completed a mazy run with a shot that fizzed narrowly shy of the left upright, and Oswell headed over the first corner given to County following the break.
Ian Ormson had to be at his best to tip over an effort by Melle Meulensteen from the right that dipped dangerously, and in the closing stages denied Alan Browne with a brave stop at point-blank range to ensure that the second-half honours remained deservedly even.
FULL-TIME: County 1 (Oswell, 26), Preston 2 (Robinson, 33; Barkhuizen, 39).
Team: Hinchliffe (Ormson, 46), Cowan, Hampson (Duxbury, 46), Winter (Capt.) (Minihan, 46), Clarke, Smalley, Ball (Etches, 78), Walker, Oswell (Brazel, 72), Warburton (West, 78), Stephenson (Thomas, 65).
Unused Subs: Whitty, Downing.
Attendance: 1,470 (406 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans