New boss Neil Warnock guided Middlesbrough to a valuable 2-0 win over Stoke City in his first game in charge of the Championship strugglers.
Boro, who replaced Jonathan Woodgate with the veteran in midweek, enjoyed only their second win in 13 games, dragging their opponents into the relegation dogfight in the process.
Ashley Fletcher headed Boro in front just before the half-hour, glancing in Patrick Roberts’ swinging free-kick from the right.
James McClean had already seen his volley well saved by Dejan Stojanovic, and passed up two other big chances for Stoke when he fired straight at the keeper and then headed against the post.
The home side were made to pay for those misses, as Teessiders substitute Marcus Tavernier, with practically his first touches, received the ball on the right, spun and cut inside before bending his shot beyond Jack Butland for the crucial second.
Nick Powell’s frustrated shunt into Britt Assombalonga, lunge on Lewis Wing and then a third nibble saw him dismissed by referee Matt Donohue for two bookings – a sour end to a disappointing day for the Potters.
Michael O’Neill’s Stoke have an impressive home record, with just one defeat in nine before today, but never really got into their groove on home turf, despite McClean’s efforts and the introduction of firepower such as Sam Vokes and Tom Ince off the bench.
Defeat puts them just a point above the drop zone, with third-from-bottom Huddersfield poised to leapfrog them if they beat Nottingham Forest on Sunday.
Boro climb a place above the Potters to 19th, with a two-point buffer between them and the bottom three.
Warnock has immediate impact on confident Boro
Warnock and trusty assistant Kevin Blackwell had barely a couple of training sessions with their new players before this game but from this evidence it had been time well spent.
Under predecessor Woodgate, Boro played attractive, passing football, while under Tony Pulis before that it was physical and direct. Warnock’s methods were best described as a hybrid of the two.
The formation, switched to a 4-4-2 for large parts, gave Boro balance with wingers providing delivery to two forwards – something craved by Boro fans after several seasons of one central striker.
It was a switch that seemed to energise Fletcher, who pulled defenders about with movement, seized countless possession on the break and added a first goal since early February.
As for 71-year-old Warnock, he was vocal from his touchline position – occasionally provoking the attentions of the fourth official – but mostly watched intently with his hands clasped behind his back.
Just a clap of the hands greeted each goal, while at the final whistle there were no wild celebrations. This is just the beginning of the job to avoid the drop.
Stoke City manager Michael O’Neill told BBC Radio Stoke:
“We allowed ourselves in the first 20 minutes of the game to be bullied, we didn’t deal with the physical threat.
“They had the wind with them in that first half, so we had to deal with the elements and a lot of direct football, and we gave away a lot of cheap free-kicks.
“The first 10, 15 minutes there were about 10 balls come straight into our box and we spoke about that beforehand.
“We were behind in the game, came out, had countless chances to equalise, concede a poor goal and were left chasing the game. Had we equalised at 1-0 down I think we would have won the game.”
Middlesbrough boss Neil Warnock told BBC Tees:
“I couldn’t have asked any more, the lads have worked hard for three days and they’ve been long sessions so they’ve had to digest quite a lot of what I want them to do.
“I think you could see today they knew what they were doing and how I wanted them to go about it and they were super really – it’s a tough place to come and they’ve got some good players and we nullified a lot of their strength, and used our strength.
“The two strikers were magnificent today, the amount of work Britt [Assombalonga] and [Ashley] Fletcher put in, [Patrick] Roberts back for an hour has given us a little lift, there were a lot of plusses. It’s a happy drive home.”
“I don’t plan ahead now, we’ve just got to try to get the best out of it we can here, it’s seven difficult games and every one is a challenge.
“The lads have shown what they can do today and it’s about standards. It’s not just what they can do, it’s a little bit more.
“The way they kept their goal intact, diving in, that is the kind of thing I enjoy.”