A rare Liam Palmer goal secured Sheffield Wednesday a fourth consecutive home win to boost their hopes of Championship survival.
Preston North End dominated much of the possession at Hillsborough but struggled in the final third, and were punished on the stroke of half-time as defender Palmer scored only his second career goal.
Ben Whiteman and Scott Sinclair missed the best opportunities that play-off chasing Preston created in the second half, allowing Wednesday to move within four points of safety.
Story of the match
Sheffield Wednesday, still under the caretaker charge of Neil Thompson and looking to avenge two goalless defeats in the past week, started positively and Callum Paterson had a couple of early chances, curling wide from Sam Hutchinson’s pass before failing to prod Elias Kachunga’s pull-back on target.
Preston eventually settled and found some rhythm, beginning to dominate the ball and testing their hosts’ resistance with a Whiteman strike from distance saved by Keiren Westwood, followed by a strong Sinclair drive from Emil Riis’ pass which Hutchinson blocked.
Hutchinson, re-signed by Wednesday at the beginning of the week, also denied Jayson Molumby as Preston struggled to turn their possession into any significant threat in the final third, a flaw they were punished for right on half-time.
In the final minute of the half, Paterson’s throw was headed into the mixer by Tom Lees, and Kachunga smartly nodded it down at the far post for Palmer to sweep in just the second goal of his whole career, in the 29-year-old’s 328th appearance.
Wednesday were happy to sit back further to protect their lead after the break, and it took Preston some time to find a way through. Only past the hour mark did they finally test again, Westwood denying Riis before needing very sharp reactions to trip Brad Potts’ effort round his post following a brilliant run by centre-back Ben Davies.
Shortly after that came their biggest chance of the match. Of Alex Neil’s January signings, the most is expected of Molumby and Whiteman, and the two combined when the Brighton and Hove Albion loanee pulled back for the former Doncaster Rovers man in the middle of the box, only for Whiteman to blast over.
Another new addition, goalkeeper Daniel Iversen, kept them in the contest with a fantastic fingertip save to deny Bannan’s long-range strike, before Sinclair was the next - and last - to miss a gilt-edged opportunity when he headed a cross from substitute Tom Barkhuizen over.
Long time coming for Palmer
As the lowest scorers in the whole Championship this season, Sheffield Wednesday are in dire need of a few extra sources for goals and would not have been too bothered where they came from.
But the last person that might have been expected to pop up with a goal was full-back Palmer, whose only other strike in his entire career came more than nine years ago, in a League One match against Milton Keynes Dons.
The Scottish international has been a brilliant servant to the club, and his attitude and versatility have proven most useful to the succession of managers who have come in and out of Hillsborough’s revolving door down the years.
Goals are almost the only thing that have tended to remain outside his remit, but this rare winner should be a reminder of the loyalty and dedication of a player who quietly leads by example.
Signings will take time
Preston’s hopes of a push for the play-off places appear to be fading after a performance in which their quality in dictating play for long spells was not matched the creativity and penetration required to slice open Wednesday’s drilled defence.
Neil has talked of this being a transitional season, and that has been particularly evident this month with a host of players coming in and out in the transfer window.
The only permanent signing has been Whiteman, who is expected to play a pivotal role as the team’s chief orchestrator in years to come, but this game was a reminder of how it can take time even for a player as obviously talented as him to settle into such a key role at a new club.
Likewise Molumby struggled to have any real influence on the contest, but Neil will still be hopeful that his business will serve the club well in the months, and possibly years, to come.
Man of the match: Sam Hutchinson (Sheff Wed)
In only his second game back at the club, Hutchinson was immense at the back with a defensive contribution borne of the desire and will to win that Wednesday will need in this relegation scrap.