Gordon Strachan's first task when he officially takes charge of Middlesbrough tomorrow will be to raise spirits in the dressing room after a traumatic week for the club ended in further heartbreak at Deepdale.
Leading 2-1 with two minutes of stoppage time remaining, the managerless Teessiders were heading for three points, which would have taken them joint second in the table.
Then disaster as the Middlesbrough defence committed the sort of error which cost Gareth Southgate his job as Billy Jones was allowed to head Preston an equaliser they barely deserved. It means that Strachan will inherit a side sitting fourth in the table, three points behind leaders and North-east rivals Newcastle.
Strachan was nowhere to be seen. But the former Coventry, Southampton and Celtic manager will have plenty to be optimistic about when he views the DVD from this match.
Despite his abrupt departure, there was a Southgate feel about the team as Boro's players looked to impress ahead of Strachan's arrival.
Having dispensed with Southgate's services on Tuesday night, only hours after he had guided his side to a 2-0 win over Derby, the Middlesbrough hierarchy put Colin Cooper in temporary charge.
Cooper made one change to the team, and that was forced, Jérémie Aliadière's foot injury giving Marvin Emnes, the Dutch forward, an opportunity to improve his meagre tally of one goal in 27 League appearances since joining from Sparta Rotterdam.
Despite the events of the last few days, Boro did not appear a team in chaos as they carved out a string of chances without managing to hurt their opponents until three minutes before half time.
Adam Johnson, the 22-year-old midfielder, typified his team's bright start. Everton manager David Moyes was in attendance, apparently running the rule over Johnson, and the player did not disappoint. He went close to breaking the deadlock in the 13th minute before O'Neil forced Andy Lonergan into an excellent one-handed save from a free-kick. Lonergan then denied Emnes before Didier Digard, the French midfielder, shaved Lonergan's post with a powerful low effort.
But just when it seemed all their good work would go unrewarded, O'Neil gave his team's 3,500 travelling fans a moment to savour, the midfielder finding the net from a 20-yard free-kick which Lonergan got a hand to but failed to keep out.
It was turning into a perfect return to Deepdale for Sean St Ledger. The £4.5 million-rated Republic of Ireland defender, who joined Middlesbrough on a 93-day loan last month, a move which is expected to become full-time in January, was given permission to start against his main employers.
St Ledger was given a warm reception on his return but even he could not have expected such a comfortable first half as Preston looked anything but a team chasing promotion.
It was a different story in the second half as St Ledger and his fellow defenders found themselves under pressure for the first time.
Alan Irvine's side, who started the day in sixth spot, came out firing and were back on level terms on the hour mark when Paul Parry pounced on the loose ball after Brad Jones had beaten away Jon Parkin's header. But on a day when they were second best, North End found themselves behind again seven minutes later, thanks to Johnson's delightful low finish, before Jones had the final say.
"It's not the first time we have conceded late goals this season," said Cooper. "It's more than just a coincidence when you concede two or three late goals."
Cooper's long association could be about to finish with Strachan keen to appoint his own backroom team.
"I was speaking to Gareth on the phone last night and he was wishing the team all the best," added Cooper.
"I've spent two-thirds of my life at this club. I don't want to leave."Reuse content