Inspiration was needed from somewhere and for 45 minutes Paul Heckingbottom found it in the form of the most random line-up he might ever choose in his current job.
But Leeds United’s tendency to dissolve will not be so easily cured and an 18th defeat of the season was waiting around the corner at Deepdale.
There was no Samuel Saiz, Gjanni Alioski or Pierre-Michel Lasogga and no sign of any of the multitude of injured players on Leeds’ books but a different team made themselves look like one until half-time unseated them.
Positivity and confidence arrived from nowhere and the lights were temporarily turned out on Preston’s season by Kemar Roofe’s 13th-minute goal. So much of what Leeds had been missing this season was there, albeit with nothing at stake.
Then came the second half and the self-harm that Leeds are so prone to. Vurnon Anita conceded a penalty in the 49th minute and Paul Gallagher stuck it away with no nonsense.
In the next sequence of attacks, Sean Maguire dispatched a routine header and Leeds resumed a life of disarray. Pontus Jansson was lying with a head injury as Maguire scored and Heckingbottom turned to the only centre-back on his bench, 21-year-old academy player Hugo Diaz. Between the Spaniard and his partner, Paudie O’Connor, the pair boasted one prior senior appearance.
It has reached that bottom-of-the-barrell stage for Heckingbottom, where the cupboard is almost bare and his attempts to rouse some last-gasp form are providing no sort of framework for next season.
Results continue to reflect poorly on him yet there was promise before the interval, despite a choice of team which seemed to be asking for trouble.
An unrecognisable defence and a green forward line produced some surprising chemistry and Roofe, who was starting for the first time since suffering a calf strain in February, was happy to oblige when two sharp touches from Kalvin Phillips stood the ball up for him a few yards from goal in the 13th minute.
The goal invited Preston on, opening up space for United to attack. O’Connor, a few days on from his debut, defended like a seasoned professional and Caleb Ekuban and Jay-Roy Grot, as an out-and-out right winger, gave some vigour around Preston’s box.
It ought not to have worked as it is did until the break but in the flurry after the interval, North End worked United out. A 3-1 win was made safe in the 82nd minute when Alan Browne glanced in a near-post delivery.
Of the thousands who travelled to Deepdale, none would have predicted the line-up which Heckingbottom pulled out of the proverbial hat.
From a squad decimated by injury and Gaetano Berardi’s latest suspension, Grot was plucked for a full league debut and Anita reprised his attempt to pass as a convincing left-back, in a defence with only one established player. Saiz, Alioski and Lasogga dropped to the bench, adding to the sense of experimentation.
Preston had no freedom to taste and try themselves, still clinging onto faint hope of finishing sixth.
Their sense of urgency was there immediately in a shot from Gallagher which would have troubled Bailey Peacock-Farrell had Stuart Dallas not thrown his body in front of it and another from Tom Barkhuizen which curled over the crossbar.
Two surging runs through the middle were an early warning of where Preston might hurt Heckingbottom’s side.
Preston, though, were stung at the first time of asking after Ekuban shrugged Paul Huntington off the ball and forced Huntington to concede a corner with a sliding tackle. Phillips worked the clearance from it into the right channel, skipping skillfully past Gallagher before smashing the ball across goal. Roofe, on his first start in almost two months, was waiting at the far post to drive a finish into the net.
Roofe has taken chances like that at a consistent rate this season, United’s top scorer despite the lack of clarity about where the forward fits best.
He was pivotal in a half which Leeds began to enjoy. There was inexperience up front but legs and energy against a high Preston backline, moreso than the flaky effort of Lasogga against Sunderland on Saturday. Preston’s pressure yielded occasional chances without forcing an equaliser. Maguire headed over at the back post after Huntington glanced on a outswinging corner and Dallas made an urgent clearance over his own bar following Gallagher’s burst into space on the right but Leeds packed their two lines of four and gradually suffocated North End’s attacks.
A spate of corners before the half-hour came to nothing, with Maguire glancing another away from goal. When Leeds clicked themselves, Preston were prised open. Pablo Hernandez drew a sprawling save from Declan Rudd on the half-hour, almost finding the bottom corner from 20 yards, and Ekuban failed by inches to apply a touch to Roofe’s searching chip into Preston’s box. It was not until the 34th minute, when Barkhuizen clipped the outside of a post with a strike across Peacock-Farrell that Leeds were made to hold their breath. Preston were just as stretched when Ben Davies lost the ball and freed Ekuban to force a low save from Rudd.
To Heckingbottom’s annoyance, the help that Preston needed came from his own camp four minutes into the second half. Billy Bodin got the run on Anita, who brought the winger down as he strayed into the box. Gallagher’s finish from the box was clinical and true, low into the bottom corner. It was all it took for Leeds’ assurance to shatter.
Two minutes later, Gallagher whipped in a cross and Maguire was onto it, knocking it past Peacock-Farrell before the goalkeeper could intervene. Jansson lay on the ground while Maguire found the net but referee Lee Probert left him there and allowed play to rage on. Having refused the stretcher after it came to collect him, Jansson promptly disappeared down the tunnel. Diaz came forth for a debut which he could hardly have anticipated on Monday morning.
Heckingbottom sent for the cavalry soon after, bringing Saiz and Alioski on, but after shots from Hernandez and Anita were turned away by Rudd, Browne timed his run to meet a cross from substitute Callum Robinson and dink it over Peacock-Farrell’s head. It is the death of a season, by a thousand cuts.