By Chris Coughlin – reporter
Preston North End failed to halt Burnley’s promotion push as a Joey Barton goal sent the Clarets to the top of the Championship.
Barton’s early deflected free-kick was the difference in a fiercely contested Lancashire Derby at Deepdale.
Andre Gray and George Boyd both hit the woodwork for Burnley while Daniel Johnson had PNE’s best chance which was saved by Tom Heaton.
Simon Grayson made two changes to the North End team that came from 2-0 down to draw with Birmingham on Tuesday with Calum Woods and Jermaine Beckford replacing Marnick Vermijl and Eoin Doyle respectively.
Meanwhile, Burnley were unchanged from their draw against promotion rivals Middlesbrough in midweek.
The Lilywhites almost got off to the perfect start in the opening twenty seconds when Adam Reach was released down the wing and sent a searching cross in towards Beckford who met Reach’s delivery but headed well wide.
Just a few minutes later, Burnley scored the goal that would take them to the top of the table.
The Clarets were awarded a free-kick approximately thirty yards from goal which Barton stepped up to take.
Barton went for goal, only for the ball to take a huge deflection off the PNE wall and past the helpless Kirkland, sending the visiting fans into raptures.
The visitors had the chance to double their lead after 18 minutes when Barton sent a low cross into the box and Gray, the recently crowned Championship player of the Year, couldn’t convert from close range.
Chances kept coming for the Clarets as PNE struggled to cope with Gray’s pace.
Gray latched onto a long ball and found his strike partner Sam Vokes who was smothered by Kirkland.
Barton was the heart of Burnley’s play as he set up another chance opportunity from a deep free-kick but Ben Mee’s glancing header bounced inches wide of the North End’s goal.
After the opening minute, PNE had struggled to pose any serious threat until shortly before half time.
Beckford took control of the ball in the box before being bundled over by Barton but referee Kevin Friend waved away the strong PNE appeals.
Beckford spurned another chance shortly after the interval, again it was Reach with the delivery but Beckford headed the ball onto the roof of the net rather than into the back of it.
Burnley replied by hitting the woodwork twice in a matter of seconds with Gray’s vicious effort hitting the base of the post before Boyd’s long range effort struck the bar.
It became an end-to-end affair as Scott Arfield curled a shot wide for Burnley whilst Woods struck a deflected effort that flew narrowly past the post.
North End’s first shot on target came on seventy minutes and with it, they nearly equalised.
Substitute Daniel Johnson ran onto Beckford’s layoff but his shot was straight at Heaton.
Deep into stoppage time, the Lilywhites came agonisingly close to claiming a point but Callum Robinson’s cushioned volley brushed the bar and went over.
Burnley saw out a tense finale to move another step closer to an instant return to the Premier League whilst PNE stay tenth ahead of Saturday’s fixtures with two games remaining.
PNE: Kirkland, Woods, Clarke, Wright, Cunningham, Reach, Pearson (10 Johnson), Browne (83 Robinson), Gallagher, Garner (74 Hugill), Beckford. Subs not used: Hudson, Kilkenny, Huntington, Smith
Burnley: Heaton, Lowton, Keane, Mee, Ward, Boyd, Marney (90 Jones), Barton, Arfield, Vokes, Gray (80 Barnes). Subs not used: Robinson, Taylor, Dyer, Tarkowski, Darikwa
Referee: Kevin Friend
Attendance: 17,789 (5,630 Burnley fans)