Alex Neil had sympathy for Middlesbrough counterpart Tony Pulis after a controversial sending-off helped Preston leave the Riverside Stadium with three points after a 2-1 win.
Boro took the lead in the 32nd minute when Ashley Fletcher scored for the third home game in a row, and they wasted a flurry of chances after that to see the victory through.
But for the second game inside five days, Middlesbrough allowed the lead to slip and ended up losing when Paul Gallagher’s 63rd minute free-kick was followed by Jayden Stockley’s header eight minutes from time.
Gallagher’s leveller had stemmed from the red card Daniel Ayala was issued for a strong, last-ditch challenge on Brandon Barker when referee Keith Stroud deemed it was out of control despite winning the ball.
Neil, whose side are two points off the play-offs after extending an unbeaten run to 11 games, said: “It was a difficult match. We didn’t play well. We were fortunate to only be one goal down. We had a big half-time and we got better.
“The game will be spoken about for the sending off because it does change the game, it puts it in our favour.
“The issue you have always got with the sending off is what is the rule nowadays? If the rule is that if you win the ball, then it’s not a sending off, then the lad has certainly won the ball.
“If the rule is dependent on how quickly you go into the ball, how high your foot is and a whole host of other things, you can understand why it might be a sending off.
“If I am Middlesbrough I would be really disappointed, but naturally for us I am pleased. The game did change on a decision. Whether that was right or wrong, that’s for other people to decide.”
Middlesbrough boss Pulis was left seething about the decision, although he also bemoaned the amount of chances that his team wasted.
Boro are now just three points clear of seventh and are 15 shy of second placed Leeds after winning just three of their last 14 games at the Riverside.
Pulis said: “Even before the red card, if you create the opportunities and chances we have, we’ve got to be more than 1-0 up. I have been at the club for 14 months and I haven’t stopped talking about the chances in the final third that we throw away.
“The first half performance was excellent and it warranted us being two or three goals up. Jonny Howson misses a chance, Aden Flint misses a chance. We have some great opportunities to score before they get the sending-off.
“The game should have been out of sight and that has been our Achilles heel since I’ve been at the football club. We dominated the game. Preston were very fortunate to be anywhere near us.
“The decision, I have watched it now on four different angles. The referee is a long way away from the challenge and he has players in between him. It looks for me that he can’t see the challenge because two of their players and one of our players is in the way.
“I have said to him that to make a decision like that you have to be 100 per cent sure, you can’t be 50 per cent or 60 per cent, otherwise you are gambling, and I think he gambled, he made a very, very poor choice and it affected the game.”
Stay updated with the latest news, gossip and football stories by following us @Football_P