TONY PULIS could not hide his frustration at the Riverside Stadium last night when a combination of some wasteful finishing and a red card decision he described as “poor” left Middlesbrough nursing a second home defeat in five days.

After Ashley Fletcher had given Boro the lead in the 32nd minute, just like he did against Brentford on Saturday, Pulis’ team had the opportunities to put the game to bed against an in-form Preston team which has now closed the gap to the play-offs to two points.

But after Daniel Ayala was red-carded for a strong, last-ditch challenge on Brandon Barker just after the hour – which even Lilywhites boss Alex Neil suggested was harsh – the visitors went on to turn the game on its head.

Paul Gallagher scored a brilliant free-kick from the resultant set-piece before Jayden Stockley headed in the winner with eight minutes remaining to leave Middlesbrough with just three wins from their last 14 home dates.

First and foremost Pulis was disappointed with his team’s failure to hit the net more, knowing a record of 40 goals in 37 league games this season is not reflective of a team pushing for promotion and holding a top six spot.

Pulis, whose side head to Aston Villa on Saturday, 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.”

Middlesbrough still looked good value for three points until referee Keith Stroud appeared to deem that Ayala had gone in recklessly and with force on Barker when he charged towards the penalty area.

Pulis said: “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.

“Dani is disappointed because he slides in and he takes the ball. He slides in with one foot, not two feet. People will turn round and say it was an aggressive challenge but it's a game of challenges. He didn't catch the lad, played the ball. It’s a poor, poor decision.

“They scored from the free-kick which shouldn't have been a free-kick. The disappointing thing is that even if we get Dani sent off at that time, at the other end of the pitch we've got to be scoring goals.

"I sound like a broken record but we should have scored four or five. We are in the top six, we have had two poor results.”

Even Preston boss Alex Neil had a degree of sympathy for Middlesbrough over the contentious decision.

Neil, whose side are unbeaten in 11 now and winning seven of those, said: “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.”