IT was a surprise to many on Tuesday night when Tony Pulis made the bold move to take off three of his key men when Middlesbrough went in search of a second half comeback.

Patrick Bamford, the player in the best scoring form under him, winger Adama Traore, the unpredictable and lightening quick Spaniard, and Everton midfielder Mo Besic, impressive since arriving on loan, were all replaced at half-time as Sheffield United led 2-0.

It was Pulis’ way of dealing with a first half display that lacked an edge and the sort of desire the manager demands from his players every time they walk out on to the pitch.

In fairness it could have been any of them, although the identity of dragging those three off offered a sign that there is nobody safe from the axe under the experienced former Stoke and West Brom boss – and that is how he likes it.

Pulis said: “I have never seen a game that’s been the same, that’s what football is like. I took Patrick off after nine goals in ten games, I took Adama off who has been our best player … that’s how it was.

“Those are two players people would have been surprised to see taken off. But they know and they understand how it is. I felt it was just one of those things. If they need to come off for the benefit of the team then that’s it. It doesn’t mean I change my opinion of them and they know that.”

In fact there is every chance that all three will be back in the mix for Saturday's first of three crucial dates with rivals for a play-off spot, Bristol City.

Traore has become such a key component of Middlesbrough’s attacking output in the last few months under Pulis and his below-par showings recently have not helped.

The over-reliance on his pace at times has left his manager to take him off in the last couple of games, fearing burn-out for a 22-year-old who plays the game with such energy and pace. Pulis said: “Both Adama and Mo went away on international duty, we lost them for ten days. They have come back and not been as bright as before they left us.

“Those are two very important players for this team. We need those at full tilt like we need everyone else that way. If they get the opportunity to play I need them in full flow.”

Bamford will be monitored in the build-up after suffering a slight hamstring problem, so Britt Assombalonga is standing by. Stewart Downing is also carrying a knock along with Besic, so Pulis will make late decisions on his team selection.

Whatever the team is that Pulis names, he also knows that he needs the supporters to be onside. There has been an increase in frustrations among sections of fans after just one win in five at such a crucial stage of the campaign, and he is desperate for the supporters to give his players at lift.

He said: “Hopefully we will get a big crowd, we need the support for the next two home games. City will bring a fair lot up, Millwall too. We need good vocal support from the terraces, or from the seats even, for the lads. The lads have to give them something to cheer about.

“Our supporters at Sheffield United on Tuesday, they saw us play so poorly. Yet I don’t think anyone left the ground, they stayed until the last minute. They are keen to see this team do well.

“We will need the fans in the next couple of games to set the tone for the game and the pace the players play at. If they can help us I am sure they will, then I am sure it will help what we are trying to do.”