Watford were unable to end their season on a high – or secure the top-half finish their campaign deserved – after falling to a disappointing 3-1 defeat at relegated Preston North End.

After Andi Weimann had put the visitors in front, they dominated for a spell only to lose Martin Taylor to injury. That led to a change in first-half fortunes as Preston were the better side for the remainder of the opening 45 minutes, having pulled level when Barry Nicholson’s shot went through Scott Loach.

Keith Treacy hit the post soon after the equaliser and went on to fire against the bar after the break before Iain Hume put the hosts in front from a superbly-taken free-kick.

The visitors though, had the chances to take something from the game. Danny Graham and Adrian Mariappa both had efforts blocked on the line before the latter, unmarked in the six-yard box, headed over the target.

Had Watford scored an equaliser, it would have given them their highest league tally since the 1984/85 campaign. Instead, they conceded a late third when Jamie Proctor capitalised on some more sloppy defending to net his first senior goal.

Malky Mackay made two changes to the side that lost 2-0 to now confirmed champions Queens Park Rangers last weekend.

Exciting Academy prospect Sean Murray made his first senior start in place of Will Buckley, while the fit-again Weimann was able to make the last appearance of his loan spell as Marvin Sordell missed out with an ankle problem. Another Hornets youngster, Tommie Hoban, was on the bench for the first time.

It was the hosts who had the first attempt inside the opening 40 seconds when Treacy led a counter-attack down the left but chose to go it alone and sliced a right-footed shot harmlessly wide from the edge of the area.

Watford were soon looking to knock the ball around though, with Murray enjoying a few encouraging early touches, and they had their first opening in the eighth minute when Weimann headed Don Cowie’s free-kick from the right side of the area back across the six-yard box but the ball went behind his team-mates.

Treacy had a shot blocked at the other end before the Hornets took the lead with relative ease in the 13th minute.

Lloyd Doyley and Murray combined patiently down the left before the latter fed Graham in space and the Championship’s leading marksman pulled the ball back for strike partner Weimann to divert the ball wide of keeper Iain Turner with his outstretched right leg from around eight yards.

After taking the lead, the visitors began to up the ante, forcing three corners in the next five minutes when the game was almost completely played in the Preston half. Murray had a shot blocked before John Eustace was off target with an ambitious left-footed effort.

However, the Hornets suffered a blow in the 21st minute when Taylor, for the second match running, was forced off with injury. This meant Hoban was pitched straight into the fray for his debut and became the fifth Academy product from the club to do so this season.

But after Darren Carter had fired into the side netting from the edge of the area, the hosts’ shoot on sight policy was rewarded into the 28th minute when a 25-yard effort from Nicholson went through Loach, who got on arm to the ball as he appeared to dive too early, suggesting the strike may have been deflected.

It almost got worse for the Hornets immediately after when they were caught hopelessly out of position on the left side of their defence, allowing Treacy the space to bring down a cross-field ball and shoot wide of Loach, only to see the ball rebound off the keeper’s right-hand post.

Hoban fired a long-range effort over but it was Preston who were in the ascendency as the first half drew to a close, although Doyley was also high and wide with a speculative effort.

Watford did have a couple of half-chances in the last three minutes of the half though, with Mariappa prodding the ball goalwards from a Cowie corner before Troy Deeney failed to get hold of a shot from 14 yards after a pass from Cowie had almost picked out Graham.

The visitors had an even better opening in first-half injury time when they briefly had a two-on-one situation but Weimann was unable to pick out Graham with his ball in from the right.

Mackay made a second change at the start of the last 45 minutes of the campaign, with Matt Whichelow coming on for Deeney. This led to the visitors switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Weimann, Whichelow and Murray operating behind Graham.

And it was the Hornets who had the first real chance of the second period when Graham momentarily got away down the right before laying the ball into Weimann, who fired straight at Turner from 15 yards.

But, after Doyle Middleton had replaced Ian Ashbee, there were two hair-raising moments in the visiting defence when Loach dropped a corner before he decided against coming for a cross and then watched as Treacy latched onto the ball and turned before thundering a left-footed shot off the bar.

If the Hornets were fortunate at that point, they were less so in the 56th minute when Preston took the lead.

Mariappa was adjudged to have pulled back an opponent in a central position around 25 yards out and Hume curled the free-kick over the wall and inside Loach’s near post to make it 2-1, again raising questions about the Hornets keeper.

That was to be the scorer’s last involvement in the game as he was immediately replaced by Proctor and then Murray made way for Buckley.

Treacy hit an angled strike into the side netting, while Cowie was off target at the other end but Watford were struggling to build up an attacking head of steam at that point as they sought an equaliser, although Graham did have a header from a corner blocked near the goalline.

But Watford’s task was almost made harder in the 74th minute when, following an attack down the right, Proctor laid the ball back across the goalmouth and it ran to Paul Hayes, whose left-footed curler was tipped over by Loach.

But the visitors were unable to capitalise on a gilt-edged opening four minutes later when a Lee Hodson shot was deflected behind from a corner. From the set piece on the right, Eustace brought the ball down and prodded it goal-bound where Mariappa looked to have a formality finish from a yard, only to see it cleared off the line.

Whichelow also had a fine chance soon after when he was picked out in the area but after bringing the ball down, he was unable to get enough on the shot to take it past Turner.

While Mariappa was perhaps unfortunate not to capitalise on his first chance, he only had himself to blame for not converting another that came his way in the 81st minute.

This also originated from a corner, with Hoban heading back across goal from beyond the back post to his central defensive partner who, unmarked and four yards out, proceeded to head over the top.

The Hornets onslaught continued, with Doyley playing a neat blind-side pass to Graham, who forced Turner to save at his near post before Doyley also had a shot blocked.

Predictably though, Watford were made to pay for not taking their chances.

Treacy sliced one effort wide before the visiting defence were opened up and Proctor waltzed through to calmly net his first senior goal.

There was still time for Preston to almost add a fourth when Loach let a long-range effort from Carter squirm from his grasp, but the ball ran to safety.

Despite the disappointing finale, there were some nice scenes at the end as the Watford players went over to the travelling fans and handed over their shirts.

Preston North End: Turner; Leather, Morgan, Devine, Jones; Nicholson, Ashbee (Middleton 52), Carter, Treacy; Hume (Proctor 56), Hayes (Miller 79). Not used: Mayor, Barton, Arestidou and Clucas.

Watford: Loach; Hodson, Mariappa, Taylor (Hoban 21), Doyley; Eustace; Deeney (Whichelow 46), Cowie, Murray (Buckley 60); Graham, Weimann. Not used: Gilmartin, Bryan, Drinkwater and Assombalonga.

Bookings: None.

Attendance: 10,953.

Referee: Fred Graham.