PRIOR to last night, Middlesbrough were being talked of as a club in crisis. One visit to Bolton Wanderers, and the Teessiders have seen how bad things really could be.

Whereas Boro were stuck in a rut on the back of six successive defeats, Bolton are in the midst of a full-blown implosion, with administration and even liquidation a distinct possibility in the next few weeks. Off the pitch, Wanderers are in a monumental mess. On it, they are careering out of the Championship with humiliating haste.

Their failings have to be taken into account when assessing Boro’s return to winning ways, but even accounting for their opponents’ shortcomings, this was still a night when Tony Pulis’ side finally reignited their promotion push.

A first win since February came courtesy of Ashley Fletcher’s first-half double, with the striker also clipping the woodwork as his pace and movement proved too much for a slipshod Bolton defence.

Fletcher made the most of the freedom he was afforded, and with Britt Assombalonga also exploiting the vast pockets of space in the Bolton half, Boro produced their most accomplished attacking display for quite some time.

They have returned to within two points of the play-off places ahead of back-to-back home matches with Hull and Stoke, and while a return to the top six is not in their own hands with five games to go, at least they have successfully dispelled some of the doom and gloom that had descended on Teesside in recent weeks. For once, the air of despondency clung to their opponents.

This has been a difficult period of the season, but troubles are always relative. Middlesbrough supporters are having to come to terms with the possibility of another season in the Championship; Bolton fans do not even know if they will have a club to support come the end of the current campaign.

A High Court hearing granted Wanderers a stay of execution last week, but debts remain unpaid, the club’s chairman, Ken Anderson, is adamant he will not be putting any more money in, and while there is talk of interested parties preparing takeover bids, a deal remains as far off as ever.

Last night’s game was only possible because the EFL agreed to the early release of a tranche of money that was not due to be paid until the end of the month, but even with the support of the authorities, the University of Bolton Stadium felt like the neglected shell of a once-proud ground. The sight of the match officials queuing up at a nearby Subway before the game because all complimentary food and drink had been scrapped merely added to the surreal feel.

Steve Gibson might have his faults, but by writing off around £1m-a-month of his own money for long periods, the Middlesbrough chairman has ensured his own club has avoided such an ignominious fate. Those who would criticise him for a perceived lack of investment this season should probably remember that.

That said, however, the mood on Teesside had grown increasingly mutinous on the back of six successive defeats, and with the gap to the play-off places having increased further as a result of last weekend’s capitulation at Swansea, it was imperative Pulis’ side did not suffer a seventh successive setback. They could hardly have wished for a better opportunity to stop the rot.

Bolton played like a team resigned to their fate from the very first minute, and it did not take Middlesbrough long to take advantage.

Pulis restored Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga to the starting line-up – an acknowledgment that Saturday’s decision to recall Jordan Hugill had not worked – and the pair troubled the Bolton defence from the outset with some slick combination play.

Fletcher drilled an early shot over the crossbar after finding himself in space on the edge of the area, but did not have to wait too much longer to break the deadlock.

There was an element of luck to his 16th-minute opener, with Assombalonga’s shot cannoning off an unfortunate David Wheater before dropping invitingly into his path. There have been times in his Boro career when Fletcher would have snatched at the opportunity though, so he deserves credit for the composed manner in which he hammered a low finish past Remi Matthews.

Fletcher was the stand-out performer throughout the first half, and 12 minutes after firing his side ahead, he was celebrating his second goal of the evening and his fifth in the space of the last nine games.

This one owed nothing to luck, with the former Manchester United loanee receiving the ball from Mo Besic as he ran outside his team-mate on the left-hand side, before opening up his body to curl a delightful finish into the far corner.

Fletcher has had his critics since joining Boro in a £6.5m move from West Ham, but he showed glimpses of what he is capable of in an imploding Sunderland team last season, and has acquitted himself well since forcing his way into Pulis’ plans a couple of months ago.

He almost claimed a first-half hat-trick last night, but while his 32nd-minute strike beat Matthews’ outstretched hand, it clipped the outside of the left-hand post. Prior to last night, Boro had scored three goals in their previous six matches – Fletcher almost matched that tally single-handedly in a little over half-an-hour.

His performance must surely have persuaded Pulis to keep him in the team for Saturday’s home game with Hull City, and while his partnership with Assombalonga hasn’t always worked, it has to be Boro’s best bet of generating some attacking success in the remaining five games. For all that Hugill is a willing worker, he has been found wanting in front of goal too often.

Bolton were certainly found wanting last night, with their only effort before the interval seeing Sammy Ameobi, a former Boro loanee, scuff a hurried shot wide of the target.

Wheater headed wide from a corner at the start of the second half, but Boro’s dominance continued unabated.

Fletcher drilled straight at Matthews after turning neatly in the box, and Assombalonga wasted a golden opportunity after Jonny Howson sent him galloping clear shortly before the hour mark. Sensing Matthews going to ground, Assombalonga chipped a shot over the goalkeeper, but his effort also sailed wastefully over the crossbar.

The miss did not prove costly as Boro cruised through the second period without really having to get out of first gear. Their three-man defence of Daniel Ayala, Aden Flint and Dael Fry was not extended, although Ameobi curled a smart effort against the bar in stoppage time.