IT WASN’T one for the purists... unless you are a fan of pure thud and blunder, toe-to-toe, lower league attritional combat.
It was far from pretty. Boro had to win ugly. And they did. Pug ugly. The second half was a pock-marked, one-toothed, medieval hag of a game and it won’t take up much time on the end of term DVD.
Albert’s goal aside – a good finish but courtesy of a defensive slip – what would make the highlights? Dimi’s save from a piledriver? George clearing off the line? Nugent missing the weekly sitter? Two Preston players going in for a crunching 50/50 on each other? An unseemly squabble on the touchline after Leo grabbed a dead ball and refused to return it? Stuani’s flying elbow? Not much will make the cut.
It was a by-hook-or-by-crook, hard-fought, no-frills, contractual obligation encounter between two hard-working sides that cancelled each other out and marked by scrambles and fumbles, misplaced passes and over-hit crosses. Overall it was a disjointed display that most witnesses will consciously try very hard to erase any memory of. And that won’t be difficult.
But you still get three points for it. And those three precious points from an Ugly Sisters showdown look like Hollywood honeys right now, piled prettily onto the quickly mounting total at the top of the table. Boro are looking good.
And as they kept the momentum going, made it four wins and 12 points on the bounce and take bubbling Boro into Tuesday’s match against Reading with a chance to seize the summit, they are beautiful points to be cherished.
But they were hard-earned. Preston were organised, physical and niggly. They snapped into tackles, closed quickly, got the ball forward quickly and directly into the box and they looked dangerous from set-plays.
And that approach made the game disjointed, cagey and creaky and made sure it had a very high scrap value.
And it left supporters fretting and frustrated through a nail-biting and shapeless second half it which Boro had to fight tooth and nail to hold what they had. Preston had a lot of possession, showed a bit of intent and went for it, brought a good save from Dimi and had one clawed off the line. It was close.
There was none of the swagger and sustained attacking intent of recent weeks from Boro. None of the liquid movement and elegance from Gaston Ramirez carving the opposition open in the final third. It was more about showing character and industry and bottle and digging in.
Boro did have a bright spell. After the Adomah goal – a defender failed to cut out Friend’s ball in and Albert took full advantage – Boro had a lively 10 minutes and Nugent could have wrapped it up but the visitors quickly regained their composure.
Well drilled Preston were quick to throw a fire-blanket out to smother any sparks of creativity and set about stomping on any glowing embers of fluid football.
They systematically stopped Boro playing their own patient, passing, possession style, took the intensity and tempo out of the game and made it a scrap.
That’s fair enough. They are entitled to play however they want and if that is the shape and system that gets the best out of their resources then good luck to them.
It is a style that has made Preston very hard to beat this season, ensured they don’t leak many goals and has meant that a side that many expected to be battling for survival are just a striker short of making a play-off push.
And, importantly, it is a style that Boro have struggled with at times over the past two seasons.
The defeats that have dented Aitor Karanka’s side most have been exactly the ones against the “limited” but industrious sides who play the percentages, dig deep and make it a battle.
Last season two defeats to Leeds and bruising set-backs at route one sides Sheffield Wednesday and Wolves took the sting out of the title charge and possibly cost promotion.
This season Boro’s ambitions have similarly been hampered by two defeats to Bristol City, laboured at MK Dons and they have been mugged at Rotherham in similar scenarios.
Most Boro fans have cold sweats over these games and approach them with a sense of dread far more than they do a head-to-head clash with a rival. These are fixtures that invite “typical Boro” to make an historic intervention.
So don’t under-estimate the importance of getting through the potential pitfall of the Preston, however ugly. It was a tough game but Boro showed spirit and steel, put their bodies on the line and clawed their way to a ungainly victory. And at this stage that will do nicely.
With the stakes rising by the game, and with the heat inside the promotion pressure cooker almost unbearable just getting through games and banking the points is crucial.
Boro have now won four on the spin and moved within a point of Burnley with a game in hand and opened a four point gap on Brighton before they play on Monday. And then they cash in their game in hand against Reading on Tuesday. By winning again they have really turned up the heat.
Boro are now two games into what was a very generous run of fixtures – three home games on the spin and away to Bolton – and have taken advantage and used them to ruthlessly ratchet up the pressure on their rivals.
They have showed they can do the pretty stuff and the ugly stuff and have the mentality and physicality to deliver with both of the key parts parts of the skill set needed to get out of this league.
Now they need to ruthlessly keep building momentum and a relentless upward trajectory by grinding out wins by all means necessary and piling up points and go to Burnley almost at Championship escape velocity.
A PINSTICKERS Guide to the day’s action in the biggest and most exciting steeplechase of them all as mighty Middlesbrough go over the last few fences and head into the final furlong of the Championship promotion race.
Ante-post favourites Boro have come back into form in their last few outings after falling a few times when fancied. On one occasion the jockey looked to be unseated. They ran out of steam over this course and distance last year but look to have learned from the experience and has added stamina. Well backed by pundits. Should have staying power if it gets over the tricky last few jumps. Worth a daft quid.
Over to you. You know the runners and riders. Usual drill: predict the score and how the game will pan out, crowd, Man of the match and National winner. I’m going for 2-0, 26,998, Albert Afterburner, and the Boro shirted Duide Nephew. Then all back here later to swap notes and boast about punting powers.