NEIL WARNOCK wanted three big wins this week to reignite Middlesbrough’s faltering play-off hopes, and his wish could yet be granted after overseeing a Riverside double.

Now suddenly the focus turns to a trip to Millwall on Saturday.

No matter how aggrieved Preston boss Alex Neil, who was red carded by referee Oliver Langford after the half-time whistle, was about this defeat, Boro have claimed six points from back-to-back games inside four days.

While Neil was furious about the 36th minute red card his captain Alan Browne received with North End trailing to Jordan Storey’s own goal 14 minutes earlier, Middlesbrough took command by adding a second five minutes into the second half from substitute Marcus Tavernier.

That was sufficient enough to lift Middlesbrough to within five points of sixth-placed Barnsley with nine matches remaining, although the Tykes do have a game in hand on the Teessiders.

Middlesbrough v Preston Picture: TOM BANKS

Middlesbrough v Preston Picture: TOM BANKS

The challenge to finish in the play-off zone remains a big one, but Warnock wants his side to keep winning – and believes they can.

If they can put a further dent in Millwall’s own top six hopes at The Den this weekend then the battle will be well and truly on again.

Warnock didn’t see any reason to majorly tinker with the side that brushed aside Stoke a few days earlier and he was proved right. The only change was for Djed Spence to drop to the bench. Darnell Fisher started against his old club, albeit in a back four rather than three.

Neil’s side started with the greater confidence despite a run he described as “alarming”. They passed the ball around well and Middlesbrough struggled to make an impact in the final third in the opening exchanges.

Middlesbroughs Marcus Tavernier (right) celebrates scoring their sides second goal of the game with team-mate during the Sky Bet Championship match at Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough

Middlesbrough's Marcus Tavernier (right) celebrates scoring their side's second goal of the game with team-mate during the Sky Bet Championship match at Riverside Stadium, Middlesbrough

It still took Preston 20 minutes to record an effort and what an effort it was. Sepp van den Berg, on loan from Liverpool, struck the crossbar from 25 yards when he met Ched Evans’ lay off first time with his right foot.

And Middlesbrough were fortunate to take the lead moments later. Yannick Bolasie, who had already whipped in a dangerous cross from the right, curled over from the left and Storey’s attempted clearance sliced the ball inside Daniel Iversen’s near post. Neil and Co couldn’t believe it. Storey thought he had made amends instantly when he met Paul Gallagher’s corner with a header that had to be well saved by Marcus Bettinelli. Scott Sinclair reacted first to the rebound by finishing well, but he was correctly ruled offside and the goal didn’t stand.

Even though Middlesbrough were still unable to secure the amount of possession they would have liked on home soil, Preston’s impetus disappeared and their task was made harder when Browne was dismissed.

The Preston skipper reacted under the nose of Langford by lashing out at Sam Morsy, whose arm appeared to hit him in the face after an aerial tussle.

Middlesbrough v Preston North End Picture: Tom Banks

Middlesbrough v Preston North End Picture: Tom Banks

To have the lead with nine minutes remaining in the first half and not to have played well was a real bonus. The challenge facing Middesbrough was for them to make the most of the advantage.

Middlesbrough finished the half the stronger, with Neeskens Kebano finally recording a shot on the stroke of half-time – even though it flashed wide after a run at the visiting defence. Chuba Akpom also had a header drop wide.

After Neil had earned himself the red card for remonstrating with Langford after the half-time whistle, Warnock had to keep his players focused on the task at hand.

Sensing control, Tavernier was introduced to provide more of an attacking threat. He had already been involved in a move that ended with McNair being denied by Iversen before he added the second.

Tavernier arrived in the box and nodded down the rebound beyond the goalkeeper after Akpom’s first time effort from McNair’s run and cross crashed against the bar.

Middlesbrough v Preston North End

Middlesbrough v Preston North End

Middlesbrough, full of confidence, never looked in any trouble after that and it was a question of whether they could add more. Grant Hall’s header dropped inches wide and Tavernier curled another effort wide of the upright.

Iversen also denied Kebano, while Marvin Johnson went close a couple of times after his introduction.

Middlesbrough (4-1-4-1): Bettinelli; Fisher, Fry, Hall, Bola; Howson; Bolasie (Johnson 63), Morsy (Tavernier 46), McNair (Saville 57), Kebano (Mendez-Laing 83); Akpom (Fletcher 63). Subs: Archer, Watmore, Coulson, Spence.

Preston (4-2-3-1): Iversen; Hughes, Storey, Lindsay (Rafferty 78), van den Berg; Browne, Gallagher (Johnson 55); Sinclair (Molumby 46), Barkhuizen (Jakobson 55), Potts; Evans (Whiteman 68). Subs: Ripley, Maguire, Gordon, Huntington.

Referee: Oliver Langford