PENALTY AGONY FOR BLUES AS PNE MARCH ON

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PRESTON NORTH END'S dream of promotion to the Premier League is still alive after a dramatic penalty shout-out win over Birmingham City, whose penalty jinx has struck yet again.

An amazing game at Deepdale ended 2-2 on aggregate after extra time and was eventually settled by the lottery of a penalty shoot-out

Trevor Francis watched on is disbelief as, as was the case in the Worthington Cup final against Liverpool, a row erupted over which end the spot-kicks should be taken at.

Francis twice led his players off the field, furious that the kicks were to be taken at the Preston end, after police and safety offices overturned the referees original decision to hold them at the end with no fans behind.

Goals from David Healy and Mark Rankine came either side of a Geoff Horsefield strike to send the game into extra time and eventually penalties.

When the spot-kicks eventually got underway Marcelo and Darren Purse, who netted twice from the spot at Cardiff, missed for The Blues and enabled local boy Paul McKenna to seal a 4-2 win.

It is the second time in three play-off appearances that Birmingham have been eliminated by penalties, and comes in the same season as the Worthington Cup heartache at the hands of Liverpool.

In the game started off in typical hot-blooded style, with the tackles flying in from both sides, and injury-plagued Jon McCarthy went off with a shin injury after a clash with Preston keeper David Lucas.

Birmingham where looking solid until the 24th minute when Northern Ireland striker David Healy unleashed a stunning volley to bring the tie level at 1-1.

A throw from the right looked to have come off Martin Grainger's arm as he challenged for the ball but Healy didn't wait for a decision and chested the ball down before firing in the volley over Ian Bennett's head to the delight of the Deepdale faithful.

Preston looked in control and always threatened on the attack but their next best chance came a minute before half time when skipper Sean Gregan fired in a fierce right-foot shot that Bennett held at the second attempt.

The Blues came back into the game near the end of the half and Marcelo had a chance in stoppage time when he turned his man and shot low and hard which Lucas did well to save low to his right.

Stan Lazaridis came off the bench at half time and almost created a goal just five minutes after the restart when, his superb cross was met by Danny Sonner whose header struck the crossbar with Lucas beaten.

With both sides looking nervous, Lazaridis did have a hand in a goal when his cross, aimed for Marcelo, went over his head and into the path of Horsefield who had got in front of Rob Edwards and steered the ball passed Lucas into the net.

Birmingham could have wrapped up the tie in the 69th minute when Marcelo had a free header from a Grainger corner. His effort went straight at Lucas who could only parry the ball and his defence managed to scramble the ball away from danger.

With time running out, Preston where given a chance to level the tie when they where awarded a penalty, ten minutes before the end, for a handball by Sonner.

Graham Alexander stepped up to take the kick but hit the crossbar and the rebound was cleared from danger by the Birmingham defence.

With four minutes of stoppage time to be played Lazaridis, beat Lucas to the ball but his shot from an acute angle ran along the goaline and away to safety.

Less than a minute later, Deepdale was again sent into raptures, when a great move from the Lillywhites resulted in Mark Rankine slotting the ball home from close range.

Jonathon Makin turned well and played in Healy who shot low and Bennett could only parry the ball into the path of Rankine who stroked the ball home to send the game into extra time.

In extra time Preston had the best chance with Rob Edwards forcing a good save from Bennett with a thunderous left foot volley from 30-yards.

Bennett again made a save with just five minutes of the added time left when Healy again showed his class with one-touch control and a good shot on the turn.

In the penalty kicks, Marcelo and Purse missed their penalties while Lazaridis and Nicky Eaden scored.

For Preston, only Rob Edwards missed for North End, while Graham Alaxander showed great character to step up and redeem himself for the normal time miss from the spot and Healy, Gregan and finally McKenna netted expertly from twelve yards to send David Moyes' men through.

The win sets up a final against Bolton and leave Preston just one win away from their second successive promotion and an emotional return to the top flight of English football.