Goals from strike partners Rudy Gestede and Ashley Fletcher – either side of half-time – gave Middlesbrough a New Year’s Day win over PNE at Deepdale.
Gestede opened the scoring five minutes before the break, hooking home after a free kick on the right wasn’t cleared and Fletcher added the second just after the hour mark, getting a block on a clearance, to take it past a stranded Declan Rudd, who had no chance.
Manager Alex Neil had made five changes before the game, with Patrick Bauer and David Nugent returning from illness and injury respectively, with Tom Barkhuizen, Darnell Fisher and Paul Gallagher also all returning to the side.
And they started brightly, with Barkhuizen found by Gallagher down the right on seven minutes, his cross pushed behind by Aynsley Pears for a corner, all after Boro skipper Daniel Ayala had lost the ball to Alan Browne in middle of the pitch.
Ayala only lasted half an hour of the game, forced off through injury, with Paddy McNair replacing him. This came as North End seemed to be building up a head of steam, however, despite starting to get on top, they were to go in behind at the interval.
McNair took a free kick on the right and it was headed up in the air. Ben Pearson tried to clear, only for a partial block on the ball to take it into the air, from which Gestede acrobatically turned it into the net with his back to goal.
The Lilywhites came out with a renewed vigour after half-time and Pearson found some space on the right-hand side and delivered a superb cross deep to the back post to where Andrew Hughes rose highest and headed back across goal, just wide of the right-hand upright.
With PNE pressing, they were susceptible to the counter and on 61 minutes they had a chance as Marcus Tavernier broke with pace before feeding Gestede in the left corner of the penalty area – he curled a powerful shot goalwards, but Rudd made a fine stop to push the ball away.
But within 60 seconds the second goal did come. An initial header through wasn’t dealt with and when Ben Davies went to clear, the ball got stuck and his attempted clearance was blocked by Fletcher, taking it past Rudd into the bottom left-hand corner from the edge of the penalty area.
Both keepers were in fine form and mid-way through the second half, Pears pushed a volley from Pearson around the post for a corner and from the resulting corner from Gallagher’s delivery, substitute Josh Harrop put the ball wide at the back post.
Two superb Rudd saves in the space of three minutes kept the deficit to two. Firstly, North End’s No.1 denied McNair’s brilliant curling effort from the left, flicking it over the bar from 30 yards, when it was heading for the top right corner and then an even better stop on 76 minutes to deny Gestede at point blank range, the striker getting a header on a left-wing cross.
The home side finally had the ball in the net with two minutes of normal time left, Harrop firing home after another substitute, Jayden Stokcley, had forced a save from Pears, after Fisher’s initial run and shot was pushed out for the No.209 to head on goal, but assistant Nick Grennhalgh’s flag was up for the striker having been offside when the initial effort from the right back had come in and the visitors maintained their unbeaten record in PR1 since the early 1970s.
PNE line-up: Rudd, Fisher, Hughes, Pearson, Bauer (Huntington, 46), Davies, Barkhuizen, Gallagher (c), Nugent (Harrop, 65), Browne (Stockley, 58), Maguire. Subs not used: Ripley, Ledson, Bodin, Potts.
Middlesbrough line-up: Pears, Ayala (c) (McNair, 34), Fry, Tavernier (Wing, 90), Clayton, Fletcher, Gestede, Howson, Johnson, Saville, Spence (Coulson, 70). Subs not used: Mejias, Wood, O’Neill, Walker.
Attendance: 13,824 (1,820 Middlesbrough fans)
Referee: Mr J Brooks