NUNO ESPIRITO SANTO slammed ref Stephen Martin for failing to get a grip on Preston’s strong arm tactics as Leo Bonatini’s two goal blast kept Wolves top of the Championship.
Wolves boss Nuno was a frustrated figure in the first half as the Lillywhites stopped his side’s free-flowing football with their physical approach.
But Bonatini’s double strike – the first from the penalty spot – after Ivan Cavaleiro’s opener finally cracked open the meanest defence in the division and sealed a fifth win in six games.
Even then it was not plain sailing as Alex Neill’s side hit back through Jordan Hugill and a Conor Coady own goal before Alan Browne’s injury-time red card after a mass brawl.
It was a match that often threatened to boil over but Wolves showed the necessary steel to stay ahead of Cardiff and Sheffield United.
Nuno said: “Three points is important but we are not totally pleased with our performance. There was too much stopping and holding in the first half.
“The ref has a difficult job and it’s unfair for me to judge all the situations but what I saw was too much holding of our players and he must stop that and punish them.
“It’s football and holding is not part of football. It’s about the law. I’m not complaining about the game plan of Preston but there is a referee to step in.
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“Their game was all about controlling our game and we have to find new solutions for it because it is going to happen.
“We were much better in the second half but after going 3-0 up, we must see out the game better and the mistakes we made could have cost us bad moments.”
Neil said: “It is a feeling of frustration as much as anything. I felt that leading up to the their first goal we had the best opportunities.
“I thought that the penalty was extremely harsh. I have seen it back and there was not much contact. You can see he (Josh Harrop) has touched the ball and the ref deems it a penalty.
“Then if you look back at the third goal our goalkeeper is clearly impeded as he goes to kick the ball and the referee chooses to do nothing about it.
“To add insult to injury at the end of the match there is a melee in the middle of the pitch – two of our players get booked, one gets sent off and one of theirs is booked.
“We have clear video footage that one of their players elbows Ben Pearson straight in the face.
“That sort of stuff is hard to take when I don’t think there was a huge amount in the game. I know it sounds like sour grapes but I am fed up getting bad decisions against us at times.
Browne had to be called back on to the pitch to be formally dismissed by Martin and Neil added: “To be honest it summed the referee up to be honest.
“He said he hadn’t actually sent Alan off. What he wanted to do was call him back to show he was in control of the game which embarrassed him as much as anything else.”
Wolves had stormed into pole position for the first time in eight years since the Mick McCarthy era after overpowering Aston Villa a week ago.
But it was Preston who came close to snatching an early lead after a misplaced clearance from Barry Douglas.
Darnell Fisher seized on the opportunity and teed up Daniel Johnson whose left-footed effort was turned around the post by John Ruddy at full stretch.
Wolves struggled to produce the free-flowing football which has been their trademark in climbing to the summit against their physical opponents.
Preston should have taken the lead after another blunder of their own making, this time by Roderick Miranda.
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Tom Barkhuizen took advantage and burst into the Wolves box and his low cross should have been buried by Daniel Johnson who fired over the bar.
It took the Black and Golds half an hour to even have a sniff of a goal and then Diogo Jota curled his shot over the bar.
But a minute from the break Cavaleiro broke the deadlock after Doherty’s run into the Preston box.
Jota’s attempted shot cannoned back to Douglas whose low centre was turned in at the far post by Cavaleiro for his second goal of the campaign – but first in 13 games.
Wolves stepped up a gear after the break and two goals in three minutes from Bonatini gave them breathing space.
First the former Monaco played slotted home his spot-kick after Doherty had been upended by Josh Harrop.
Then he was on hand to tuck away a close range rebound after Jota’s shot had cannoned off the legs of Chris Maxwell.
The score-line was harsh on Preston but they pulled one back when Hugill headed in Alan Browne’s cross.
It became 3-2 as Coady turned a cross from Barkhuizen into his own net before Browne’s late red card for a second bookable offence.