Division Two: Burnley 0 Preston North End 3 - Pete Oliver's match verdict

WITH the Queen's Lancashire Regiment sending off pre-match firecrackers that were loud enough to wake the dead, perhaps it was inevitable that Burnley's bubble would burst.

For it to be pricked so emphatically by derby rivals Preston, only rubbed salt into the wound.

But this was the battle won and not the war. And the Clarets won't yet throw in the towel in pursuit of auotmatic promotion, even if it's Bristol Rovers or Millwall and not North End that they have to catch.

Preston blew it last year, but on this evidence they won't again.

And as their joyous supporters, rather than those of Burnley in a sell-out crowd of 22,310, chanted "Going up, Going up," it was hard not to believe them.

The play-offs must remain the Clarets' first aim with promotion an attainable yet more distant dream. But even to be sure of a top-six berth they will have to regroup after this chastening defeat.

Luton at Turf Moor on Tuesday night, where Stan Ternent's men have now been beaten twice this season, offers them the ideal chance to get back on track.

And critically, Mitchell Thomas will be free from suspension to play. So, too, Andy Payton. And after drawing a blank for the second home game running, albeit against top-quality opposition with a man short for almost an hour following the dismissal of Dean West, Burnley will be glad of that.

Thomas has been outstanding for the Clarets this season and his stock rose again in his absence.

When he didn't play at Bury, Burnley lost 4-2. And when he was missing for only the second time, Preston took full advantage. "That tells its own story," admitted Ternent.

Without Thomas and the injured Gordon Armstrong, the manager reverted to a 4-4-2 line-up with West recalled at right-back.

The defence didn't look as comfortable but before it was clear to see whether that was down to a change in tactics or just the lack of Thomas's presence, Preston had scored from a corner.

Michael Jackson's headed goal after just 90 seconds rocked the Clarets and inspired the visitors.

Ternent felt the rub of the green had gone against his team, however. "Michael Jackson kicked it against the post for a corner and they scored from the resultant corner, so there we are," he said.

And the boss felt even more hard done by when West was sent off after 38 minutes for a second yellow card.

The full-back was rightly cautioned for an earlier foul on winger Ian Anderson in a rough house opening, but this one looked harsh for a regulation foul with plenty of other players in attendance.

"I don't really comment on the referee. You saw the match and I think it would be more appropriate, in my view, if you report what you see.

"Obviously it doesn't help when you're playing against one of the best team in the Second Division with 10 men.

"We had the same thing with Bristol Rovers. That day we won through, this time we couldn't," said Ternent.

From then on it was a near impossible task for Burnley against the meanest defence away from home in the division, and an attack perfectly suited to picking holes in an under-manned back-line.

Chris Brass came on at half-time in place of Andy Cooke as Burnley went to three at the back. He performed manfully and even Thomas wouldn't have stopped the rot once the Clarets were exposed in their search for an unlikely equaliser.

Ternent added: "We had a good spell (after half-time) and they caught us on the break, which was always likely to happen.

"I had to gamble a little but I thought the players stood up and kept at it and I thought 3-0 flattered them because the goals were on the break. A true result, 11 against 11, certainly wouldn't have been 3-0 in my view."

That said, the Burnley boss admitted his side had been well and truly beaten.

"We have to accept it gracefully and how we react to it is of the utmost importance now," he said.

The Clarets, desperate to win in front of a full house to close the gap on Preston to just two points, seemed to panic after falling behind so quickly and, instead of taking stock, flew into some injudicious tackles and wobbled at the back.

Lenny Johnrose was lucky to stay on the pitch following a two-footed lunge at Sean Gregan which went undetected by referee John Kirkby, who required treatment himself after seeming to be hit on the head by something thrown from the Preston end. It took a fine block by West to thwart Steve Basham before Jonathan Macken headed over a wonderful cross from Cartwright, who had replaced the crocked Gregan.

Burnley rallied and took the game to Preston but Glen Little appeared to be the only one with the key to unlock the North End defence, apart from one long kick from Paul Crichton which allowed Ian Wright to force the only save of the game from Tepi Moilanen.

One floated cross from Little picked out Wright, who leaped superbly but was denied his first Burnley goal by a matter of inches as the ball fell the wrong side of the post.

The Clarets upped the tempo further after half-time and suggested for a spell that they might find a way through.

Had John Mullin taken a Wright lay-off in his stride the goal might have come. Instead Preston took advantage of Burnley's need to push men forward.

And after Crichton had denied Anderson for a second time, Macken collected a rebound to plunder his 23rd-goal of the season 18 minutes from the end.

Six minutes later, Rob Edwards sent a low, 30-yarder inside Crichton's left-hand post and Burnley were well and truly put in their place.

PICTURE: Clarets defender Dean West is shown the red card after his second bookable offence.

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