Neil Warnock had the immediate effect Steve Gibson hoped for when Middlesbrough’s owner sacked Jonathan Woodgate on Tuesday and replaced him with a 71-year-old who is correctly billed as a Championship specialist. Warnock’s expertise was hired to try to avert relegation and, after this convincing win over a muted Stoke, Boro are two points clear of danger with seven matches left.
City, though, drop to 20th and trail Boro by a place and a point, thanks to a goal in each half, one from Ashley Fletcher and the other by Marcus Tavernier. To make matters worse for Stoke, who travel to Wigan on Tuesday, they had Nick Powell sent off a minute from time.
For this first game of his 18th managerial reign Warnock made six changes from Woodgate’s last match – a 3-0 loss at home to Swansea – with the inclusion of the £15m club record signing, Britt Assombalonga, the most notable of these, the striker having last scored in November.
Michael O’Neill’s had drawn their opening match of the restart – 1-1 at Reading – but were dominated here initially.
Assombalonga won the opening corner for Middlesbrough, which was taken by Paddy McNair. A second one, from the opposite quadrant, ensued, but Stoke cleared. Next up, Fletcher broke up the right and crossed but Stoke scrambled the ball away. Assombalonga then wasted a free-kick, the ball sailing over Jack Butland’s goal.
Stoke now imposed themselves. James McClean hit a first-time shot that Dejan Stojanovic did well to beat away. This initiated a run of four corners – two from either side – that ended when Jordan Thompson’s delivery from the right was headed wide by James Chester.
The defender would soon rue this as Warnock received the welcome sight of Fletcher fashioning a classic glancing header past Butland from Patrick Robert’s pinpoint free-kick from the right.
Boro were deservedly ahead and they continued to press, to O’Neill’s obvious concern. Stoke were passive, allowing George Saville and Jonny Howson to orchestrate from midfield, and they came close to conceding a second when Djed Spence moved forward and pinged the ball in but Assombalonga could not connect with a sliding finish.
O’Neill brought on Tom Ince for Lasse Sørensen four minutes before half-time and the way the latter trotted off suggesting this was a tactical move from an unhappy manager.
Boro felt the opposing emotion as the second half commenced. O’Neill’s instruction was surely to up the tempo, judging by how Tyrese Campbell’s pace immediately punched a hole in Boro’s left, and when the ball came to McClean he should have scored. Instead the wide man dawdled and when he finally let fly Stojanovic made a fine point-blank save. Further frustration occurred moments later for McClean when his header from Tommy Smith’s cross beat Stojanovic but not the right post.
To try to retain this momentum O’Neill brought on Sam Vokes and Jordan Cousions, a striker and a winger for the defender Bruno Martins Indi and the wide man Thompson, the double change coming on the hour.
Warnock’s response yielded instant gold. Tavernier replaced Patrick Roberts and the No 7 promptly outmuscled McClean, twisted inside, then beat Butland low to his right from 20 yards.
Stoke were deflated. When the profligate McClean floated in a 70th-minute free-kick that went straight out this summed up his and the side’s afternoon. Boro ended as strongly as they had been throughout, taking the game to Stoke, with Powell being sent off for two industrial tackles in two minutes that drew yellow cards from Matthew Donohue, the referee.
On this evidence Gibson has made a smart choice in recruiting Warnock, whose next match is on Thursday at Hull, who are a point behind Stoke.