Middlesbrough 1 Preston 2 - Dave Seddon's match verdict on PNE's Teesside triumph
Preston North End’s push for the play-offs, which is being fuelled by their away form, suddenly feels very real.
A sixth away victory on the bounce at Middlesbrough last night propelled Alex Neil’s men to within two points of the top six.
Bottom of the division on October 2, PNE are now dark horses to come from nowhere and challenge in the chasing pack.
The three points collected on Teesside owed much to a second-half comeback and a decision from referee Keith Stroud which had the home camp up in arms.
North End trailed 1-0 at the interval and were lucky to still be in the game at that stage.
After the break there was more purpose about their play but little end product, that was until Daniel Ayala steamed into Brandon Barker a couple of yards outside the box.
The Boro player’s tackle, made with two feet, was seen as out-of-control by Mr Stroud who brandished a red card.
Ayala had probably not reached the dressing room when Preston dished out more punishment.
Paul Gallagher found the bottom corner with the free-kick, a timely moment indeed to score his 100th career goal.
With the bit between their teeth, PNE pushed on to score the winner through Jayden Stockley.
Not since 1971 had they won on Boro turf - either at Ayresome Park or the Riverside - in league action, an 1987 FA Cup win as good as it has got since.
It’s typical of this side to end the sequence, there are seemingly few limits to what they are about just at the moment. Six away wins in a row is some going.
The fact they were so poor for 45 minutes made this one that little bit sweeter.
Neil had changed course and played a 3-5-2 system to start with, not one he has generally gone with during his time as PNE manager.
Frankly, they looked all over the place playing that way and reverting to 4-1-4-1 was to help change their fortunes.
There were other factors which contributed.
Barker’s introduction as a half-time substitute injected more life into them.
The winger was direct and played as if he had much to prove – last Saturday’s game at Blackburn was his first time in the squad for two months.
Certainly the red card for Ayala was a game-changer and Preston didn’t look back after that.
Stockley, like Barker, made his presence felt from the bench, firstly with the goal and then the shift he put in to help defend.
At one stage towards the end, the striker was operating as an extra centre-half.
Post-match, Neil was big enough to admit he had got it wrong with the three at the back experiment.
It was partly to match-up Boro and also a way to play two strikers in Sean Maguire and Lukas Nmecha but still have the bodies in midfield.
Had they been three or four down by half-time, there could have been few complaints.
Twice the home side hit the woodwork early on and drew three saves from Declan Rudd.
As it was, they had to settle for an interval lead given to them by Ashley Fletcher in a slightly fortuitous way.
His 32nd-minute shot clipped off Jordan Storey, the touch enough to take it beyond the reach of Rudd.
North End had lost Alan Browne by that stage to injury, the Irishman having played as a right wing-back.
He gave way to Joe Rafferty who looked more comfortable there.
More chances came the way of Boro after the interval before PNE found a way back.
Barker was just outside the box having latched on to a pass from Maguire when Ayala slid in to dump him on the turf.
Contact was with the ball and man, what Mr Stroud was to frown upon was the fact it was made with both feet and both were rather high.
Boro protested the award of the free-kick, their howls grew louder when the red card appeared.
A few years ago it might have been regarded as a good tackle but the rules have tightened up since.
Gallagher tapped the free-kick to Andrew Hughes, he set it up and Gallagher curled it into the bottom corner.
Urged on by Neil, they went for the jugular of their 10-man hosts.
Hughes’ shot from 25 yards hit a Boro player and looped into the air in the box.
Stockley was first to it and with no defender in sight, headed over the keeper.