Birmingham 1 Preston 2
Two wonder strikes from Preston spoiled Birmingham’s promotion party and left the midlands outfit facing a nervous final day at Reading in their bid for automatic promotion from the Coca-Cola Championship.
Ross Wallace’s stunning 89th-minute free-kick won it for North End and broke Blues’ hearts, while it also saw the winger shown a second yellow card for removing his shirt in celebration.
Captain Paul McKenna, who was breaking Tom Finney’s appearance record for the Lancashire outfit, had early levelled matters by rifling home from fully 30 yards.
His 68th-minute equaliser cancelled out Keith Fahey’s header – which had put Blues on their way to the three points that would have secured a top-two finish and an immediate return to the Premier League.
Lee Bowyer and Lee Williamson also saw red on the hour mark for grappling inside the centre circle on an evening full of incident and drama in B9.
The result leaves Birmingham just one point ahead of third-placed Sheffield United ahead of their trip to the Madjeski Stadium next Sunday, while the Blades go to Crystal Palace.
North End, meanwhile, are two points adrift of sixth-placed Burnley and three off Cardiff in fifth and host QPR on what is going to be some final day.
History was on Preston’s side as they went into the encounter having won six of the previous seven meetings between the two clubs.
Both teams settled into their stride early on with Blues looking the more menacing in attack – and the first clear-cut opening went their way in the 17th minute.
Sebastian Larsson chipped the ball over the North End defence and with Bowyer challenging keeper Andy Lonergan, the ball broke free to Garry O’Connor.
With Lonergan out of position, the striker tried his luck from the edge of the area but Billy Jones was on hand to head clear.
Preston then reminded the hosts of their threat midway through the half when Mellor’s left-wing cross evaded everyone before coming back off Maik Taylor’s far post, Chris Sedgwick firing the rebound into the side netting.
Franck Queudrue was penalised for trying to punch the ball into the net while Preston were looking dangerous at the other end.
But neither side could find the opener as the first half drew to a close.
Birmingham-born Sean St Ledger wasted a glorious opportunity to become party pooper within the opening stages of the second half when he somehow headed wide from close range with the goal at his mercy.
And the Lilywhites paid the price in the 57th minute as Fahey lost Sedgwick at the far post before heading home James McFadden’s right-wing cross to send St Andrew’s wild.
Matters soon heated up on the pitch as Bowyer and Williamson were shown straight red cards for violent conduct.
And out of nowhere North End levelled courtesy of a stunner from McKenna - drilling the ball into the top corner from fully 30 yards.
Jerome thought he had won it for Blues only to see his header ruled out for offside, before coming within inches of converting McFadden’s cross.
Fahey then drilled over for Blues before Jerome was guilty of blazing over the bar from just six yards when he really should have scored.
But Wallace stole the show for the visitors before seeing red in a dramatic finale which also saw St Ledger clear off the line.