FORMER Middlesbrough manager Steve McClaren thinks Tony Pulis managed to pull off one of the best signings that a Championship club is capable of when he landed midfielder John Obi Mikel last month.

McClaren, now in charge of Queens Park Rangers, was back at the Riverside Stadium where he enjoyed success before taking on the England job in 2007 and witnessed Mikel turn in another effective display in a Boro shirt.

The 31-year-old Premier League and European title winner has barely put a foot wrong in his five starts since arriving as a free agent in January and McClaren thinks it was a Middlesbrough masterstroke to have drafted him in.

Even though Mikel wasn’t the stand out performer in the 2-0 defeat of QPR, he once again displayed composure in a commanding display at the heart of the Middlesbrough team to help lay the foundations for the victory.

McClaren, who has worked with some of the best players in the world during his coaching career, believes it is a sign of just how much Middlesbrough want to achieve promotion this season that a player of his calibre agreed to drop down to the Championship.

“This is a huge club with great potential and they want to get promoted, Tony Pulis knows how to do that and Mikel can make a difference,” said McClaren.

“Mikel has been an excellent signing. You always have that one player in centre-midfield, who gives you stability and control, and they have a Champions League winner in there, one of the best.

“He dominates the ball. Every team needs a Mikel. I have been impressed with him and has given them an edge. For me, Mikel has changed the season.

“The introduction of Britt Assombalonga, Lewis Wing and Ashley Fletcher makes Middlesbrough more potent, attacking, which is what they have not had, but for me Mikel has changed the season.”

While Mikel has required very little time to adapt and find his feet on Teesside, impressing everyone he comes across with his attitude and ability, his presence is also bringing the best out of those around him.

The defenders he has behind him have talked about how the Nigerian’s displays are making them more confident to pass the ball out from the back, while Pulis’ change to a system with three midfielders looks also like it could benefit Mo Besic.

The Bosnian midfielder has not had the best of the seasons by his own standards and yet, in the last two victories over Blackburn and QPR, the on loan Everton man has displayed more quality than he has at most other stages of the current campaign.

Besic created both of Middlesbrough’s goals against Rangers for Jonny Howson and Ashley Fletcher, and Pulis doesn’t think it is a coincidence that Mikel is playing alongside him either.

The Middlesbrough boss said: “Goodness knows why Mo was out of form. They're human beings. Things go on in their lives, everything else, you can't understand. 

“He trains smashing, he's a great lad. It might help that the two of them (Besic and Mikel) are close together, they both live next to each other now, him and John, so John might bring that out of him.”

Besic’s pass for Howson’s opening goal inside the first two minutes caught QPR out and then his run and pass for Fletcher was reminiscent of his driving performances of last season.

He did fade and was replaced by Stewart Downing just before the hour because he was also on a booking.

Pulis said: “Mo looked tired in the second half, he was stretched, he gave a free-kick away just before that, I didn't want to take the chance so I took him off.

“Mo is very creative at times. The pass to Howson is sublime. It's good, I'm pleased. Good result. Again, should have scored more goals if there's a criticism but we move on.”

Middlesbrough’s win didn’t reduce the gap to the top two because both Sheffield United and Leeds United won too, although there is a six point cushion to seventh placed Derby County now.

There had been a sense in recent home games that the crowd could turn if there was not a positive result and performance and it has often weighed heavily on the players’ shoulders during a run of two wins from their previous 11 home league games.

Beating QPR on home turf has eased some of those frustrations.

Asked if the win had lifted the weight from everyone’s shoulders,

Pulis said: “Not for me, might be for the players, the press, the public. I've been in this situation a lot, you have to keep believing you're going to get it done. There's always time around the corner.

“I thought we gave the fans a really good show in the first half. The movement was good, second half, one or two looked a bit tired.

“Fletcher looked a bit tired, second half syndrome. First game you're pumped up. Britt tired off a bit as well. One or two didn't have the energy in the second half to stretch the game and that's what we needed to do.”

The sight of Fletcher blasting a confident finish into the net was also a welcome relief. It was only the second time he has scored in the league since joining from West Ham in a £6.5m move in the summer of 2017, and he has not even been fancied enough to start games under Pulis.

This was Fletcher’s second straight start, contributing to two wins with an assist and a goal from his appearances, and he received a standing ovation from the Riverside crowd when he left the pitch.

Pulis said: “His miss second half wasn't the sign of his confidence! But he's had to wait a long time, now he's in the mix, he has to stay in the mix and keep doing what he has done in the last two games. 

“He's wearing the shirt the fans love. He's supporting and playing for the club they love. If you run around a bit and do what he did, you'll get rewarded by the supporters and he deserved that.”

Middlesbrough will be keeping an eye on George Friend again this week but the signs are not great that he will make a quick enough recovery to start against Plymouth on Saturday.

He was not ruled out by his boss when he was asked, although his facial expression suggested otherwise.

Regardless of who plays, and midfielders Howson and George Saville are doing well as wing-backs, Pulis thinks his team are growing in confidence.

Pulis said: “We’ve only lost one game this calendar year and that was Sheffield United with ten men. We've had too many draws at the Riverside, we've got to turn them into wins.

“There’s 13 games left, that's a lot of games. And if we can get Besic up to that level that was at last year, him and John Obi Mikel, that's an awesome pair in midfield."