IF there was an occasion to bring hope to Middlesbrough for the new year, this was it.
After another 12 months to forget on Teesside, Leroy Lita illustrated how quickly things can change in football at Deepdale.
Lita, effectively back-up to Kris Boyd and Scott McDonald under Gordon Strachan, vindicated Tony Mowbray's decision to give him a chance by delivering the goals that ended 2010 on a high note.
Mowbray's challenge remains a long-term one and a relegation fight that is far from won, but by defeating the Championship's bottom club, Preston North End, optimism can grow slightly.
For a team that had lost 15 of their previous 22 away trips in the last year, Mowbray must have feared the worst when his side fell behind to a first-half Billy Jones header.
But then the Boro boss witnessed the recovery he was demanding.
Less than two minutes later Lita struck a sweet equaliser to lay the foundations for a much-needed win on their travels.
And when Lita, doubling his tally to four for the season, finished off a sublime pass from Julio Arca just before the hour, the stage was set for David Wheater to complete the win moments later.
The victory only the second away from home this season may not have been as comfortable as the scoreline suggested, but it was enough to keep them out of the relegation places and close the gap to fifth from bottom to a point.
The healthy contingent of travelling supporters that had made the trip over the Pennines quickly learned an early goal from Crystal Palace at Bristol City had pushed Boro in to the bottom three.
That was clearly not going to be the perfect way to end 2010, but Middlesbrough had the opponents to climb back out given Preston propped up the rest of the division.
Middlesbrough's awful poor record, however, suggested otherwise. While Mowbray witnessed his side create a couple of half chances in the first half, he also had to endure Preston's quick breaks forward.
Both Darel Russell and Gary O'Neil had missed the target with powerful drives at either end when Preston should have made Middlesbrough pay for a wasted break forward.
When Lita failed to turn and find his man deep inside the Lilywhites' half, Preston broke with a long pass which striker Joshua King did well to volley first time in to the path of Michael Tonge.
Tonge, a one time target of the Teessiders, made the most of plenty of space through the middle of the pitch to put the defence on the back foot. He rolled the ball to the unmarked Adam Barton, but he missed the target.
There was plenty of movement from Marvin Emnes and Lita at the opposite end and they had already combined before the latter looked to have slotted in the opener from Kevin Thomson's pass. Referee Craig Pawson ruled it offside.
While there might have been encouraging signs from Middlesbrough, any decent work appeared to have been undone when Preston forced a way through inside 28 minutes.
Middlesbrough goalkeeper Jason Steele had conceded a corner by making a fingertip save to stop a 22-yard drive from Russell that was heading for the top corner.
And it was from the corner, when Lita inadvertently flicked on Danny Pugh's centre, that resulted in full-back Jones diving low to nod Preston ahead.
It was debatable whether the lead was deserved. Either way, it did not take long for Middlesbrough to drag things level again.
A quick inter-change of passes with Emnes ended with Lita being allowed to carry the ball deep into the Preston half. With options to his left, the striker decided to go it alone and he struck a sweet shot high into Andrew Lonergan's top left.
Middlesbrough had the larger share of the possession, but failed to make any sort of progress once they were in and around the penalty box.
Preston, on the other hand, should have added a second.
Both Pugh, unmarked at the back post when he drove low and wide, and King, when his shot dipped just wide, cut frustrated figures when they failed to find the net.
But Middlesbrough do not sit perilously close to League One for nothing. Much needs to change in the next few months and old habits looked like setting in again after the restart.
Jones' energy down the flanks caused problems and, when he was left unattended, his driving run and cross from the right by-line should have been converted.
Instead, Middlesbrough escaped.
Just as they did when Jon Parkin, a former loanee at Hartlepool, forced Steele in to a low save when Bates had been put under significant pressure by King.
Those two missed opportunities proved crucial because Middlesbrough, suddenly, came to life. Emnes should have scored, when he was denied by defender Wayne Brown, and then Lita did.
It was Arca's exceptional pass, from half way, that sent Lita through on goal. He took a touch before he applied the low finish across Lonergan to put Middlesbrough ahead.
Just two minutes later it was three. This time Gary O'Neil's free-kick from the right touchline was floated in to the area, Wheater climbed highest to nod the cushioned header into Lonergan's bottom left.
There were further opportunities to add to the score, and wasted, but Preston could also have reduced the arrears.
All that matters on Teesside this morning is that Middlesbrough head in to the New Year on the back of a rare away win.
If that sort of outcome continues, the revival under Mowbray will well and truly begin.
Match facts Goals:
1-0: Jones (28mins, dived at the back post to nod in Lita's flick on from Pugh corner)
1-1: Lita (30, ran from half way before unleashing terrific drive high beyond Lonergan)
1-2: Lita (59, latched on to Arca's superb through pass to finish)
1-3: Wheater (61, jumped to nod O'Neil's free-kick down in to Lonergan's bottom left)
Bookings: Pugh (72, foul)
Referee: Craig Pawson (Sheffield) straight forward afternoon for the man in the middle and always nice to see cards, except one, stay in the official's pocket 7
PRESTON NORTH END (4-4-2):
Lonergan 5; JONES 8, Brown 5, Morgan 5, De Laet 6; Tonge 6, Russell 6 (Coutts 62, 5), Barton 5, Pugh 6 (Treacy 75); King 6, Parkin 5 (Parry 85). Subs: Davidson, Nicholson, Arestidou (gk), McLaughlin.
6 Steele: Made a fine save to deny Russell in the first half and not to blame for the opener;
6 Hoyte: Caught out of position a couple of times but grew in confidence as the game developed
7 Bates: Defended strongly even if he gave away plenty of inches, and pounds, to Parkin
7 Wheater: Was a constant menace whenever Preston reached the Boro box and headed a great third
7 Bennett: Not as effective as he has been, yet still looks the best option for that role;
6 O'Neil: Might be up for sale next month but he is still playing for the cause and played a part in the third
6 Tavares: A tidy display in the middle for the Senegalese international
7 Thomson: Positive performance in the middle and provided the calmness Mowbray wants
8 Arca: Saw plenty of the ball and always the most likely to create something and he did, with a stunning pass;
6 Emnes: Lively enough without ever looking like testing Lonergan in the Preston goal
8 LITA: Struck his goals in style and celebrated both as if it meant everything to him
McDonald (for Emnes 72) McMahon (for Tavares 87) (not used): Boyd, Bailey, Kink, Coyne (gk), Hines
MAN OF THE MATCH
LEROY Lita might not have had the best of times at Boro but he enjoyed yesterday.