Reading ended play-off chasing Preston's 12-game unbeaten run with a valuable 2-1 victory that the hosts fully deserved this afternoon. First half goals from Méïté and Barrow meant Jayden Stockley's injury time strike was a mere consolation for Alex Neil's men.
Royals boss José Gomes was able to start injury absentee Andy Rinomhota in midfield, while Nelson Oliveria made an early return from a hamstring problem to take a place on the substitutes' bench.
The home crowd first rose the volume when they saw Yakou Méïté collect the ball in the right-back position but burst forward down the right, beating two or three before eventually dispossessed on the edge of the Preston area.
At the other end, a Royals wall held firm when Gallagher had an opportunity to test Martinez after 11 minutes. Half an appeal for a penalty from Andy Yiadom after a jinking run into the North End box was waved away, and both teams had spent the opening quarter of the match weighing up their opponents.
Fresh from his international appearance for the Icory Coast, Méïté confidently took aim from 25 yards out but failed to trouble Declan Rudd as his effort skidded wide.
Soon after Ejaria took aim only to see his drive blocked by a Preston head. The ball fell back to Rinomhota whose hastily taken left-footed shot flew over the crossbar.
With the half hour appraoching, Rinomhota fizzed a nice low ball into Ejaria in a central position. The loanee danced his way into the box and twice saw shots charged down, but he stabbed the loose ball out to Méïté in some space - only for Yakou to arrow high over the crossbar from a promising position.
But a minute later, Reading took the lead. Swift released Barrow in behind the Preston defence down the left. He passed a low cross into the middle where Méïté arrived to hammer home from six yards out.
And five minutes later it was 2-0! Martinez's goal kick was headed on my Meite for Barrow to chase. Ben Davies covered but his pass back to Rudd was short and Barrow nipped in between Storey and the keeper to steal the ball and pass the ball into an empty net!
Rudd prevented a third on the stroke of half-time. Ejaria did brilliantly to carve out a yard to get a shot away and it took Rudd at full stretch to tip it against his left post - the ball ricocheting out to a North End shirt to clear.
Half-time: Reading 2-0 Preston North End
Alex Neil made a double change at the break, bringing on Jayden Stockley and Brandon Barker. And immediate Barker's pace down the left caused problems for Yiadom - getting to the byline but his cut back hacked clear by Ejaria.
Patient build-up play from the back resulted in Ejaria finding some space in the attacking third soon after, but his direct run down the middle ended when his pass towards Méïté was just cut out by a Preston boot.
Barker was forced off with injury just before the hour, Moult replacing him. Barrow's shift ended at the same time as Gomes introduced McCleary. And McCleary's first impression should have carved out a third goal for the hosts. Springing the offside trap down the right, he crossed low into the middle where Ejaria couldn't quite manage to tap home under pressure.
McShane was brought for the injured Swift to shore things up at the back and Martinez comfortably gathered in a low drive from Stockley with 20 minutes left.
Preston kept pushing and Moult turned to spoon an effort over the bar from 12 yards out. Reading remained reilient though - Méïté typifying the commitment on show by sliding in to halt a Preston attack and then running the full length of the pitch in a one-man counter attack that ended with a last ditch challenge in the visitors' box.
McCleary fed Ejaria with 12 minutes left and the midfielder looked to return the favour and pass the ball into McCleary who had made a run into the area. But it was just cut out by a Preston defender.
McCleary did get a change to take aim moments later, but drilled over the bar from outside the box. At the other end, Gallagher collected a knock down but dragged a shot well wide.
With five minutes remaining, Preston were reduced to ten men as Ben Pearson - who had battled on bravely with an injury - had to walk off the pitch and Neil couldn't replace him having used all three of his substitutes. Meanwhile, Gomes still had a change up his sleeve - bringing on Harriott for Ejaria late on.
The Royals looked comfortable as we entered four minutes of injury time. But Preston managed to pull a goal back through Stockley who reacted fastest to a stabbed effort that beat Martinez and cannoned back into the six yard box off the crossbar.
But the home side rightly hung on for a fully deserved victory in front of a buoyant Madejski Stadium.
Full-time: Reading 2-1 Preston North End
Reading: Martínez, Yiadom, Blackett, Moore (c), Miazga, Baker, Rinomhota, Swift (McShane 65), Ejaria (Harriott 88), Barrow (McCleary 58), Méïté.
Subs: Walker, Gunter, Olise, Oliveira.
Goals: Méïté 31, Barrow 36
Preston North End: Rudd, Fisher, Earl, Pearson, Robinson (Barker HT (Moult 58)), Johnson, Gallagher (c), Storey, Davies, Maguire, Nmecha (Stockley HT).
Subs: Crowe, Rafferty, Huntington, Ledson, Moult.
Goals: Stockley 90(+2)
Attendance: 16,771 (1,782 away)
Referee: Mr T Harrington