FOR a team that seemed to have forgotten how to find the net after Tony Pulis’ Boxing Day appointment, Middlesbrough are now scoring like genuine promotion contenders intent on sealing a Premier League return.

If they continue to score at the rate they are currently achieving then a swift return to the top-flight will be a much stronger possibility than it appeared just a few weeks ago, when they couldn’t hit the proverbial barn door.

The early frustrations that supporters, and Pulis, felt in his early weeks in charge at the Riverside Stadium have been swiftly overtaken by a fantastic run of form that has got them right back in the promotion reckoning.

It is hard to imagine that this is basically the same set of players, albeit with the added drive and forward thinking of Everton midfielder Muhamed Besic, which had struggled to give Pulis’ time in charge the lift-off many expected initially.

The former West Brom boss used to cut a frustrated figure in his technical area and in the media suite at the Riverside at the end of each of his first three Championship home games in charge, when they failed to score against Aston Villa, Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday.

Now, though, his only complaint is that Middlesbrough should be scoring more – even though they have hit the net three times in each of their last three matches, while they also scored twice against Reading in the fixture before that.

Pulis remains a passionate coach on the sidelines, but he is not having to show the sort of animation he was in those first few weeks, when he was clearly unhappy with a lot of Middlesbrough’s play, whether it was players not pulling their weight or even moving in the sort of direction he was demanding.

Middlesbrough had always been expected to show such form after a summer of expensive transfer business, but it is only under Pulis – and with the help of Patrick Bamford’s own personal return to form – that they have started to get things right at both ends of the pitch.

Pulis said: “We’re playing through the pitch a little bit more, getting it wide earlier, we’re not wasting passes and giving the opposition chance to get back and in shape.

“We’re playing some smashing football. Mo Besic’s made the difference. We’ve got players who get forward through the pitch, I’m not a backwards and sideways man. You can play that way but I love playing it wide and getting the ball in the box.”

His summation is spot on. For all of what can be made of Bamford scoring eight goals in his last five matches, what has also become abundantly clear is the impact of the team-mates he has alongside him.

Adama Traore, with his third goal and he could have had another, has had enough praise lavished on him, and quite rightly so because of the performances and improvements he has made down one wing, while Stewart Downing provides the perfect balance on the opposite side with a more experienced way of playing.

There also seems to have been an increase in balls into the box from the full-backs, with Middlesbrough’s first two goals against Barnsley the result of deliveries from Ryan Shotton on one side and George Friend on the other.

Both of those had arrived inside 18 minutes, and the first was with just 49 seconds on the clock. Shotton’s precise and deep centre was ideal for Daniel Ayala to outmuscle Dimitri Cavare and prod in the finish.

The second was when Friend’s even deeper cross ended up dropping to Traore on the right. The Spaniard controlled, cut inside and then struck a brilliant left-foot finish – supposedly his weaker foot – powerfully beyond Nick Townsend’s right hand from the edge of the area.

Barnsley couldn’t get a look in during that opening period, with Besic, Adam Clayton and Jonny Howson running things in the middle. Besic, particularly, is looking a masterstroke of a signing from Goodison Park with his energy and constant desire to move forward.

Pulis said: “First half we did very well, passed it well, played through the pitch and put lots of crosses in. The one disappointment was that we didn’t score more goals.

“The third goal should have truthfully killed it but we took our foot off the pedal and that’s one of the things we’ve been talking about. You can’t do that at any level.

“You’ve got to make sure you keep your foot on the pedal. It’s been a tough week, three really tough games and we’ve got the points we want and need so I can’t be too harsh on them.”

Middlesbrough’s third was seven minutes after half-time. Downing’s corner was badly dealt with by Townsend and when the goalkeeper missed it the ball bounced off the knee of Bamford at the back post and ended up rolling into the net.

That took Middlesbrough’s tally to 13 goals in five games, promotion form in anyone’s book. And they have the quality to stay in the mix provided they don’t allow their standards to drop, as they did having gone into such a handsome lead against the Tykes.

Barnsley, looking every bit relegation fodder until they pulled one back five minutes later when Keiffer Moore headed in after Darren Randolph had not dealt with Gary Gardner’s long range drive convincingly.

But Pulis was relieved to see Middlesbrough’s back four, with Ayala and Ben Gibson once again as effective as they were during the previous two promotion battles, staying strong and resilient to stay in command – just as they did at Birmingham in midweek.

There was one glorious chance which Traore wasted for Middlesbrough to extend their advantage.

Rather than pick out the frustrated and unmarked Lewis Baker, the former Barcelona winger decided to go for goal himself after going clean through and Townsend denied him.

Nevertheless Middlesbrough had done enough again to extend the gap over seventh-placed Bristol City to three points.

A top-two spot – with second top Cardiff 12 points clear – might be off the agenda, but Pulis knows targets can still be achieved if his players embrace the situation.

He said: “The challenge is to stay there now. As I’ve said, we can work all week but once they cross that line they take responsibility and it’s up to the players.

“A lot of things are said about managers and coaches, but the players have to take responsibility.

“In the next nine games we’ll see.

“I don’t know what their characters are like because I’ve not brought them in, but they’ve done fantastic since I came here and now we’ll see what happens and try to keep it going.

“They’ve picked things up and we’ve got the flying winger on the right who will cause anyone in the world problems in any league, especially when he’s at it like he was at times, he’s absolutely scintillating.

“Stewart picks it up for us, and Mo and Howson want to run forward and that helps to have players in the team who can do that.”