It has been a rocky and difficult season at times for Preston North End goalkeeper Declan Rudd which will have made last night’s victory against his former club Norwich City that bit sweeter.
Rudd turned in arguably his best performance of the campaign as PNE toppled the Canaries from their perch at the top of the Championship.
The 28-year-old, who was a Carrow Road season-ticket holder as a kid, came through their academy and played Premier League football for them, saved a Marco Stiepermann penalty in the first-half and stood in the way of the visitors on five occasions after the break.
Suddenly, the blooper at Birmingham in December – the one which went viral – seemed a million miles away.
While Rudd deservedly got the man of the match award from the sponsors, do not think for one moment he was the sole reason for this win.
At the other end of the pitch, his team-mates were clinical and impressive.
Of the four shots they had on target, three found their way into the back of the net.
Don’t overlook two others either which hit the bar, one of which led to the third goal being scored.
The first-half performance from North End was as good as I have seen from them this season.
Their use of the ball, the speed of thought, the fleet of foot caught the high-flying Canaries off their guard.
They attacked at will, finding space in between their hosts to work themselves into promising areas.
Ben Davies gave them the lead inside 100 seconds, then Paul Gallagher netted from the penalty spot to double that advantage in the 24th minute.
Step forward Rudd into the spotlight to save a penalty just beyond the half-hour mark to keep the two-goal cushion in tact.
Sean Maguire’s first goal of the season was timely in that it gave PNE a 3-0 lead at a time when Norwich had got on top and were pressing for a route back in.
It knocked the stuffing out of the visitors and while they did get on the scoresheet two minutes into injury-time, that proved nothing more than a consolation.
Like goalkeeper Rudd, North End boss Alex Neil was up against his former club.
He managed them for 26 months, took them up to the Premier League and back down again.
This was his first taste of victory against them in four attempts as Preston manager.
Neil was delighted with what Rudd did between the sticks but did not see it as the main reason his side came out on top.
“Declan played very well, make no mistake,” said Neil.
“I would be disappointed if Norwich think they should have won and Declan was the reason they didn’t.
“We got 3-0 up in the game and played some excellent football.
“Both teams tried to win the game and it was us who did.”
While PNE are very much on an upward trajectory at the moment, this was their first home win for two months.
Going into this contest, they had won three on the spin on their travels but drawn twice against Swansea City and Derby County.
So to add a Deepdale win to the unbeaten run was another box ticked in their revival.
The three points lifted them to 13th place, leapfrogging Lancashire rivals Blackburn Rovers in the process.
Facing the team who came to Lancashire unbeaten in six games and at the division’s summit didn’t worry the Lilywhites.
Just one minute and 40 seconds were showing on the clock when they nosed in front.
Gallagher’s free-kick from the right-wing was met by Davies who climbed above a yellow shirt to head home his first goal of the season.
Brad Potts smacked a shot from 25 yards against the bar, Tom Barkhuizen’s powerful run from his own half setting that chance up.
Emiliano Buendia’s foul on the reborn Darnell Fisher saw PNE awarded a 24th minute penalty, Gallagher driving it through Tim Krul to make it 2-0.
Norwich got a penalty of their own when Ben Pearson’s tackle took the legs of Onel Hernandez.
Rudd went to his right to parry the spot kick from Stiepermann.
PNE dug in after the break to protect the lead, Rudd denying Teemu Pukki soon after half-time and later making saves from Hernandez and Ben Godfrey.
Those saves proved invaluable as they conjured up a third goal at the other end to effectively put the game to bed.
Alan Browne’s 30-yarder came back off the bar and into the path of Maguire who chested down and fired home.
Pukki got one back two-and-a-half minutes into stoppage-time but it mattered little.
By then, Norwich’s unbeaten away record stretching back to August had gone, with Preston continuing to do exactly what Neil had promised once he got a properly staffed squad to select from.