Boro were in competitive action for the first time since a 2-0 loss to Norwich in the play-off final and there was little evidence on this showing that Aitor Karanka’s men, now shorn of striker Patrick Bamford, are better equipped to reach the top table this time around.
Aside from a Grant Leadbitter effort which flew narrowly wide and Albert Adomah almost stealing in twice in the second period, they failed to carry much attacking threat in the first match since Karanka signed a new four-year deal this week.
These sides experienced contrasting fortunes in their last outings three months ago, with Wembley holding fond memories for North End in comparison to the heartache Boro suffered at the hands of the Canaries 24 hours later.
Karanka’s men have retooled for another tilt at promotion since, notably bringing Stewart Downing back to his boyhood club, and expectation is high that the Spaniard can deliver a top-flight return for the Teesside club.
Downing was deployed in a No 10 role on his second debut for the club, behind striker Kike and ahead of central midfielders Adam Clayton and Leadbitter.
And after Bailey Wright had failed to connect with a header at one end, it was Boro’s skipper who should have drawn first blood at Deepdale.
Leadbitter drove into the box via a one-two with Kike and brought himself space by feigning past John Welsh only to drag his effort wide of debutant Jordan Pickford’s near post.
North End were without their injured Wembley hat-trick hero Jermaine Beckford, who joined Simon Grayson’s side on a permanent basis after a goal-laden loan spell, and that gave Manchester United youngster Will Keane a chance to impress alongside Joe Garner in attack.
Keane nearly opened his Lilywhites account 28 minutes in as he prodded towards goal after Dimitrios Konstantopoulos failed to clear a Paul Gallagher free-kick, but George Friend got himself between the ball and his goal.
Konstantopoulos continued to look uneasy and he was under no pressure moments later when he inexplicably split a routine ball in, recovering to deny a Garner dink after the forward had hit the ground following a tussle with Friend.
The reigning League One player of the year wanted a penalty for that duel and although Friend was grappling with him, Garner’s fall appeared manufactured.
Middlesbrough were hardly living up to their billing as favourites for promotion as headers from Kike and Daniel Ayala both fell off target early in the second period.
Preston went through their successful play-off campaign without conceding a goal but it took a desperate lunge from John Welsh to deny Adomah when the Ghana international cut inside Pickford.
Boro were lacking a cutting edge, though, with Downing subdued largely subdued as he drifted between the lines, only sparking into life inside the final 10 minutes to drive over with his right foot.
Tom Clarke hurled himself in front of Adomah as the winger pulled the trigger and Garner failed to connect with a Cunningham cross in the final minute as Boro followed the strongly-fancied Derby in producing a goalless draw first up.
Preston manager Simon Grayson:
“I thought the players worked extremely hard, carried out the game-plan and on another day we could quite easily have had a couple of goals.”
Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka:
“They played very well and were very well organised defensively, and they wanted the ball more than us so we have to improve.”