TONY PULIS last night praised Ashley Fletcher for firing Middlesbrough back into the play-off picture – but the Boro boss has still challenged the two-goal striker to develop more of a mean streak.

Fletcher’s first-half double secured a 2-0 win over Bolton Wanderers that lifted the Teessiders back to within two points of a play-off place.

The gap will increase to four points if Aston Villa win at Rotherham United this evening, but after a run of six successive defeats, last night’s victory has at least given Boro a fighting chance of finishing in the top six.

Fletcher’s brace proved decisive, and with the striker now having scored five goals in his last nine appearances, Pulis is delighted with his improved level of performance.

The 23-year-old is finally starting to justify the £6.5m price tag that accompanied him when he moved to Middlesbrough from West Ham, although Pulis still feels he still suffers from a lack of edge, both on and off the pitch.

“Most probably, he’s been too nice around the place and he’s still too nice as a footballer,” said the Boro boss. “At times, he gets brushed off too easy but that will come, he’s got lovely clean feet.

“These goals will do him the world of good. We’ve talked about it and about angles he receives the ball, different things you talk about with forwards. He’s a young lad and he’s not as mature as he will be – but I’m delighted for him.”

Fletcher barely featured in the first half of the season, having spent the second half of last term on loan at Sunderland, but he has become an increasingly influential figure in the last couple of months, with his partnership with Britt Assombalonga developing nicely.

He boasts a more prolific record than either Assombalonga or Jordan Hugill in the second half of the season, and while he was dropped for last weekend’s defeat at Swansea City, he will retain his place in the starting line-up when Boro host Hull City on Saturday.

“You get crucified for not playing him on Saturday, but he’s a young lad still growing into his body,” said Pulis. “People say, ‘He’s a young lad, he can run around all the time’, but this is a different level and you have to play the level to understand it.

“Today and Saturday are Fletch’s games. He's got two goals tonight, hopefully he can carry it on for the Hull game.

“I’ve been absolutely delighted, and I mean delighted, with him. He’s a great kid, he’s never dropped his head and never been a minute’s problem.”

Pulis was understandably delighted to see his team return to winning ways, even if he did not feel the overall level of their performance was markedly different to that produced in a number of the games they lost.

“People have been asking me about six defeats, but four we could easily have won,” he said. “There are only two games I’ve been disappointed with, and even at Swansea we had 14 efforts on goal. Flinty missed two headers, one six yards out and one two yards out.

“I’m pleased for the players – they got their rewards because they took two of the many chances we created.”

Pulis made four changes to the side that lost at Swansea, and at least one will not be reversed in the remaining five matches with defender George Friend unlikely to play again this season.

Friend tore a groin muscle at the Liberty Stadium, and while he was at the University of Bolton Stadium last night watching his team-mates perform, he is not expected to be available for the rest of the run-in.

“I don’t think George will be fit for the rest of the season,” said Pulis. “Which is a massive disappointment. To lose Wingy (Lewis Wing) and George, they have been two big players and important for the run-in, but they’re not there so we have to get on with it.”