MIDDLESBROUGH succeeded in silencing Preston manager Phil Brown, but as is becoming a painful norm were unable to send their supporters home with a smile on their faces as another late goal robbed them of a vital two points.
Boro were two minutes from victory until Billy Jones nodded home in the 88th minute to cancel out Matthew Bates' fine individual effort on 71 minutes.
In midweek, Brown had been in boisterous form, suggesting that Middlesbrough's players had not been paid and questioning their desire. That statement was hastily retracted on the Lilywhites' club website, but the damage had been done.
But, after spending the duration of the second half screaming at Boro left-back Joe Bennett, alleged to have made a meal of a challenge on the touchline, the South Shields-born manager failed to make an appearance in the post-match press conference, citing a sore throat.
This was a game which Middlesbrough should and could have won. Comfortable for much of the game, Preston posed little threat. But Leroy Lita's 81st minute chance, saved by North End goalkeeper Andy Lonergan, gave the Lilywhites the impetus to go up the other end and score a late equaliser.
Holding on to a lead is something Middlesbrough have found difficult in recent weeks their FA Cup exit to Burton Albion, a New Year's Day draw at Leeds shining examples of a basic inability to see games out.
Middlesbrough manager Tony Mowbray although pleased at extending the team's league unbeaten run to five was disappointed that his charges were unable to put the game out of sight when they had the opportunity.
Mowbray said: It feels like we've dropped two points. Second half it was pretty onesided and we created enough chances to win the game but the frailties we have talked about are there to see with teams gambling against us by putting defenders forward. It was a game that should have been finished, but it wasn't.
It is bitterly disappointing because that second half was as good as we have played since I came here and we had two really good chances to kill the game. We had an excellent second half and that is exactly how we want to be playing as a team that is what we are striving for.
But that sounds hollow because at the end of the day we have only taken one point from a team we really should have beaten.
We created enough chances to comfortably score two or three today but if you don't kill teams off, if you don't stick the ball in the net, then you are always vulnerable.
If Brown's obdurate 5-3-2 formation afforded Boro's forward line of Kris Boyd and Leroy Lita very little in the way of movement, in doing so it created gaps in the midfield, with Boro's four men gaining the ascendancy over the Lilywhites' midfield three.
With Lita and Boyd stifled, Boro were reduced to halfchances in the opening 45 minutes, with Gary O'Neil forcing Lonergan into a couple of simple stops.
However, a long-range effort almost brought Boro the first goal of the game five minutes before half-time.
Nicky Bailey's 30-yard strike was parried only as far as Lita, who saw his follow-up shot palmed away again by Lonergan.
On 44 minutes, Paul Parry who had seen an earlier effort repelled by Jason Steele danced his way into the Boro box only for his effort to be deflected away.
Marvin Emnes, a secondhalf substitute for Kris Boyd, had a couple of chances to give Boro the lead on 68 and 69 minutes, but was denied by Lonergan for the first chance and let down by poor finishing for the second.
Such was the dearth in quality going forward, it seemed almost fitting that a centre-half should provide the sole moment of real quality, as Boro's skipper Bates skipped through Preston's midfield and unleashed a vicious shot through Lonergan from the edge of the area. An unlikely source and, truth be told, an unlikely goal.
Lonergan prevented Boro making it two with a stunning save on 81 minutes from Leroy Lita, who deflected Andrew Taylor's low cross goalwards.
The Lilywhites stopper pounced and showed superb athleticism to push Lita's unorthodox effort into safety.
The importance of that save was only too apparent when, seven minutes later, Conor McLaughlin swept a cross in, Nathan Ellington on as a substitute fluffed his lines and Jones was on hand to nod past Steele to give Preston a share of the points.
Mowbray picked the Emnes chance and Lita's miss as being key moments of a game which should have seen Boro victorious.
He said: If Leroy had stuck that chance in at the end it's 2-0 and it's all finished. We've spoken about getting that killer second but we couldn't get it.
We dominated the ball, second half we were more dominant than in the second half at Bristol City when we scored four but this time we only scored one.
Match facts Goals:
1-0: Bates (71, low drive from edge of the area after running unchallenged from own box)
1-1: Jones (88, stooped to head home after McLaughlin's cross evaded Ellington)
Bookings: Jones (over celebrating 89); McLaughlin (52, foul); Meyer (75, foul)
Referee: Mick Russell (St Albans) Made a couple of baffling decisions but let the game flow. 6
7 Steele: Made some decent stops to prevent Preston from getting a foothold in the game.
8 McMahon: Offered a constant outlet on the right, and although his final ball needs work, he was a constant threat to Preston
7 Hines: Will have to work hard to go any distance towards filling David Wheater's shoes, but this is a very promising start.
8 Bates: Took his goal extremely well for a centrehalf, but will be disappointed that his side could not hang on for victory
8 BENNETT: Did everything an attacking left-back should do.
Was a constant menace 6O'Neil: Had a couple of efforts saved in the first half, but faded in the second half
5 Bailey: Has been asked to play a defensive role this season and looks generally unaccustomed to that.
5 Robson: Passed and defended generally well, but took a knock early on and didn't really recover. Subbed at half-time
7 Taylor: Mowbray is attempting to persuade the left-back to become a left-winger, and on this showing you can understand why
4 Boyd: Was marked out of the game, and although a big unit, failed to win a header during his time on the pitch
6 Lita: Worked hard to get into space, but had little opportunity as Preston's five-man defence smothered him
Arca (for Robson, 46): A positive influence and seemed at home at the attacking point of the midfield. 6 Emnes (for Boyd, 62): Was unfortunate not to score, but had an explosive impact in his 30 minutes. 7
(not used): Ripley (gk), Miller, Grounds, Smallwood, Park.
PRESTON NORTH END (5-3-2):
Lonergan 7; McLaughlin 7, Morgan 6, St Ledger 5, Cort 5, JONES 7; Nicholson 6, Parry 6, Russell 4; Hayes 4 (Ellington 55, 6), Hume 5 (Mayor, 70, 4). Subs (not used): Arestidou (gk), Brown, Douglas, Carter.
MAN OF THE MATCH
JOE Bennett has made the leftback role his own this season and gave a masterclass in the role of attacking full-back.
Source: Northern Echo
Source: Northern Echo