ALL the build-up to the lunchtime kick-off at Deepdale was geared towards a heavyweight bout between Middlesbrough and Preston North End in front of a raucous atmosphere. It was anything but. To use a boxing analogy, Boro were put on the ropes by the Lilywhites and never really left as they folded on all fronts.

The implications on the game had a baring on Boro’s opening exchanges with Chris Wilder’s side failing to settle and get to grips with the ball. Compared to their last two games, they were nowhere near their best.

What was more alarming about Boro’s start was that Preston carved open a couple of chances with relative ease. Emil Riis-Jakobsen forcing Luke Daniels into a fingertip save in the box and Bambo Diaby threatening from a free header into the box.

Boro looked weak and were duly punished at Deepdale. Brad Potts swung a ball into the area and after some initial commotion, Alan Browne was allowed to chest the ball and volley into the far corner from the edge of the box leaving the despairing Daniels with no chance.

The goals began to flow in elsewhere in the games that mattered with Sheffield United surging their way into the three goal lead against champions Fulham.

Boro were like a rabbit in the headlights. They had no response going forward with Preston able to sit in and soak up any meaningful pressure whilst Boro’s backline looked panicked and disorganised.

Preston were able to breeze past Boro to double their lead for a goal that would have left the management team spitting feathers. Riis-Jakobsen was able to squirm the ball away from Anfernee Dijksteel and Jonny Howson near the corner flag and drive into the box. His low delivery was diverted into the far corner by Dael Fry who did his upmost to block out a chance. If you were a guessing man, you’d have thought Preston were the team fighting for the play-offs.

The Northern Echo: The Boro players in action at Preston.The Boro players in action at Preston.

Along with their concentration and aggression, Boro were starting to lose their heads. Paddy McNair and Sepp Van Den Berg got tangled up in an off the ball incident and tempers began to flare as both teams clashed. Four players, including the initial two involved, were booked in the space of two minutes as both managers exchanged heated words to one another in the technical area.

Boro’s first half was compounded by the news that Luton had handed themselves a lead against Reading. Wilder has often referred to away performances at Barnsley and Bristol City when reflecting on his side’s worst displays but that had to be right up there with them.

The second half’s opening minutes were Boro’s best of the game as they handed themselves a crucial early lifeline. With Boro piling numbers forward, Dijksteel floated a ball to the far post and Marcus Tavernier stretched every fibre of his body to reach the ball and nod in at the back post.

But the pattern of the game quickly reverted back to type. Riis-Jakobsen was making mincemeat of the Boro defence and it was down to the Dane to flatten them again. After Boro threw numbers forward, the striker was threaded in behind by Cameron Archer. The onrushing Daniels charged out but Jakobsen showed the upmost composure to dink the ball into an empty net. Another goal that was far too easy for Boro to concede.

From there, the game was well beyond Boro. As he said he would in the build-up to the game, Wilder said he would throw caution to the wind if he needed to and Folarin Balogun, Josh Coburn and Aaron Connolly were all thrown into the mix. Balogun had a good chance when Riley McGree cut back to him inside the box but Daniel Iversen’s save just highlighted how ineffective Boro have been in attack this season.

As if the afternoon couldn’t get much worse. Cameron Archer was allowed to drift inside from the left easily dancing past Fry and firing in on goal. It initially looked like McNair had pulled off heroics to block on the line before the referee pointed to the spot and gave the Northern Irishman his marching orders for handballing off the line. Jakobsen stepped up and did the rest from 12 yards.

Ryan Lowe’s side cruised it around Boro for the remainder of the game which was a non-event. As was the play-off race on the final day of the season with Luton Town and Sheffield United completing victories.

It was an excruciating watch for the thousands of Boro fans who filed their way out the stands at Deepdale after Wilder had gathered the players in the centre circle and instructed them to salute their travelling supporters.

The very least they could have expect as to see the players put up a fight but it wasn’t even a contest throughout the afternoon. There will be a lot to dissect for Chris Wilder and the management team from their final outing. Having spent months clawing their way up the league table and forcing their way into the play-off mix, their work was undone as they folded to pieces at Deepdale. Another season in the Championship awaits.