FOR the first time since August, when automatic promotion was the aim, Middlesbrough have won three games in a row in the Championship to climb back in to the top six at Easter.

After all the frustrations of the last few months, and the moans, the groans and mutterings of discontent among sections of supporters, the Riverside Stadium felt like a good place to be again, as Stoke City were left to rue missed chances.

And the Premier League dream, with only three matches remaining, is still very much alive.

The performance that secured a 1-0 victory over Tony Pulis’ former club Stoke City, that lifted Middlesbrough back above Bristol City, was by no stretch of the imagination an outstanding one, but a job that needed to be done has been.

Britt Assombalonga’s 14th goal – a tally that is decent in its own right considering how up and down it has been on a personal level for him – was the deciding factor, and one that brought something of a buzz back to the Riverside at the final whistle.

There is still much work to be done to stay in the top six, starting with a trip to face Martin O’Neill’s Nottingham Forest on Easter Monday, but after recovering from a six-match losing streak by winning the last three, at least Middlesbrough are back in with a strong chance again.

Middlesbrough, even with a makeshift line of defence, secured a 19th clean sheet of the campaign. While that backline deserve credit, Paddy McNair’s first league start of 2019 was particularly noteworthy.

With the sun shining and the vibe positive and relaxed when the match started, it was important that was how it stayed. Middlesbrough’s players will have known what was required to reclaim a top six spot. Bristol City’s draw with Reading in the earlier kick-off should have provided the perfect boost.

Dael Fry’s hamstring injury, following on from the problems suffered by George Friend and Daniel Ayala, meant an opening at the back and McNair was given the opportunity and didn’t disappoint, like he was when he last appeared as a substitute at Blackburn on February 17.

McNair had barely touched the ball when Middlesbrough, who included young defenders Djed Spence and Nathan Wood on the bench as cover, gave the vibrant Riverside crowd the perfect start.

When John Obi Mikel picked up possession just inside his own half he spotted Jonny Howson darting down the right. The diagonal pass was perfect for the wing-back to control and then centre into the six-yard box, where Assombalonga had moved ahead of Danny Batth to flick beyond Adam Federici.

Batth had his season long loan to Middlesbrough cut short in January to allow him to complete a permanent move from Wolves to Stoke, and he was never replaced, which is another reason why Pulis’ defensive options are so stretched.

He knew all about Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher, and neither really held down a first team shirt when Batth was around, but he couldn’t do anything to halt the former Nottingham Forest man.

Middlesbrough have taken early leads and not done enough after it, so the opener certainly didn’t guarantee a routine win and Stoke had a period after that when they enjoyed plenty possession.

There were a couple of decent opportunities too, which stemmed from dangerous crosses into the Middlesbrough area. The first, when Tom Edwards robbed George Saville on the right, required Aden Flint to be aware of the lurking Sam Vokes to head clear.

And the second was the result of a fine delivery to the centre of the area from former Sunderland winger James McClean, and Benik Afobe lost his man but directed a header inches wide of Darren Randolph’s left hand post.

Middlesbrough soon settled and didn’t do enough to create much more before half-time. The nearest they came was when Fletcher wriggled himself clear of his man inside the area and hammered an effort high over the bar.

Middlesbrough could easily have had their lead wiped out before the break. Vokes was picked out by another McClean delivery but the former Burnley man, often considered by Boro, guided his header wide under attention from the home defence.

Far too often Middlesbrough have failed to kill off matches, but at this stage of the campaign, when so much is hanging on the line every time they play, there is an even greater need for Pulis’ side to develop that ruthless streak.

But Stoke, who have recorded the fewest shots on target of any team in the division since Nathan Jones took over, were wasteful too. After Ryan Shotton had headed wide for Middlesbrough, Afobe was again guilty of missing the target from a sweet McClean corner.

Pulis’ attempt to alter the flow of the game was to introduce Downing as the left wing-back, allowing Saville to replace Mo Besic in midfield. It almost led to the second when Saville was next to head wide.

But the longer the game went on the more withdrawn Middlesbrough became. They seemed intent on holding on to their advantage and that led to a nervous finish.

There was no need to worry. Middlesbrough’s makeshift defence stood tall, and Randolph never looked in danger. The Riverside hasn’t been a nice place to be at times this season, but this was a Good Friday.