Jermaine Beckford inspired Preston North End to a first ever Play-Off promotion as they beat Swindon Town 4-0 at Wembley Stadium.The striker, on loan from Bolton Wanderers, became only the third player to score a hat-trick in a Football League Play-Off Final and it helped break North End’s hoodoo in the end-of-season showdown.
They had failed to win promotion in any of their last nine voyages into the Play-Offs but it was to be 10th time lucky, to send them back into the Sky Bet Championship after a four-year absence.
It was also third time lucky for Beckford, who had tasted Play-Off defeat in 2006 and 2008 as a Leeds United player, and the match-winning performance came just a few months after he was driven close to retirement with a severe ear infection.
Beckford’s loan spell at Deepdale had started with five goalless games but the Wembley Final was only three minutes old when he grabbed the opener.
Paul Gallagher had fed the striker down the line, only for him to be brought down by Swindon captain Nathan Thompson. Then, from the resulting free-kick, Gallagher picked Beckford out and he made no mistake, firing home on the volley from close range, after beating Thompson to the ball once more.
Ten minutes later, Gallagher was in thick of things again as the Lilywhites doubled their advantage. The Leicester City loanee’s corner was initially cleared but it found it’s way back out to him, via John Welsh, and he clipped it into the middle for Paul Huntington to score.
Swindon then managed to get a foothold in the game, with midfield duo Massimo Luongo and Yaser Kasim seeing more of the ball and having an influence on proceedings.
Jack Stephens’ 25-yard effort was deflected over the bar after the Robins’ centre-back had jinxed through the Preston spine, before Michael Smith wasted a golden opportunity when he glanced a Nathan Byrne cross just wide.
And they were made to pay for that miss moments later when Beckford took centre stage once more. After his strike partner Joe Garner had nodded the ball down, the 31-year-old swivelled, outmaneuvering his marker Jordan Turnbull, before unleashing a curling left-footed effort which nestled in the far corner.
It was a clinical first-half display from Simon Grayson’s side, and they squandered an opportunity to extend their lead immediately after the restart. It was Beckford in on goal again, but Swindon stopper Wes Foderingham came out on top this time, palming away low down to his left.
But the front man wasn’t to be denied the matchball. In the 58th minute, Daniel Johnson disposed of Sam Ricketts and fed Beckford, who calmly finished in front of the North End faithful to join Clive Mendonca and Scott Sinclair on the list of Play-Off Final hat-trick scorers.
The West End of Wembley was bouncing; Beckford had done his job. He left the field to rapturous applause in the 68th minute as Kevin Davies entered the fray.
Davies could have scored himself after being teed up by Garner, who is so often the goal-getter, but the evergreen striker could only nod wide.
To their credit, Swindon continued to pass the ball but they couldn’t find a way past a stern North End back line and, when they did, goalkeeper Sam Johnstone was on hand.
Simon Grayson’s side had been denied automatic promotion on the final day of the regular season, but they weren’t to be denied on the big stage at Wembley. It was a complete performance from Preston, spearheaded by Man of the Match Beckford, and the Preston faithful could celebrate Play-Off promotion at last.
Preston North End: Johnstone (GK), Clarke (Capt), Wright, Kilkenny, Beckford (Davies 67), Gallagher (Browne 37), Garner, Woods, Welsh, Huntington, Johnson (Laird 82).
Subs not used: Stuckmann (GK), Humphrey, Reid, Hugill.
Swindon Town: Foderingham (GK), N Thompson (Capt) (Ricketts 5), Byrne, Luongo, Stephens, Turnbull, Gladwin (L Thompson 58), Kasim, Smith, Toffolo (Williams 66), Obika.
Subs not used: Belford (GK), Hylton, Rodgers, Belford, Rossi-Branco.
Referee: Andy Madley.