TONY PULIS has challenged Middlesbrough’s players to keep on going after watching his team show the sort of fighting spirit required to stay in the play-off zone with three matches remaining.

A makeshift Boro defence, which included versatile midfielder Paddy McNair being asked to play as part of a three, held its nerve to keep Stoke City at bay after Britt Assombalonga had fired Middlesbrough into a second minute lead.

Stoke were wasteful in front of goal too, which saw them record just one of their 14 shots on target, and Boro did just enough to make it a third win in a row without conceding a goal in any of those against Stoke, Hull and Bolton.

That little run has lifted Middlesbrough back above Bristol City, who do have a game in hand, and into sixth spot, which is the perfect turnaround after losing six matches on the bounce before that.

Pulis said: “I’m pleased with the win. We’ve played much better than that and lost games at this place. If you look at the six games we lost, particularly the home games against Preston and Bristol City and the likes.

“We’ve not been as fluent against Stoke. To have five players missing from the backline that we started with at the beginning of the season, it takes a lot of courage and determination from the players to go out there and play the way they played.

“They’re having to do jobs they are not used to. Like I say, I think we’ve played better in other games than we have here but we just haven’t taken our opportunities and chances. It’s all about results as a manager, if you don’t get results you don’t hang around long.”

Season ending Injuries to Dael Fry, Daniel Ayala and George Friend meant that Pulis has had to tinker with his defensive options in recent weeks, and he had to include teenagers Djed Spence and Nathan Wood on the bench against Stoke as back-up.

Midfielders Jonny Howson and George Saville, latterly Stewart Downing, performed as wing-backs again, while Ryan Shotton was asked to play on the left of a defensive three for the first time in his career.

The decision to include McNair on the right of that triumvirate might have raised a few eyebrows beforehand, but the former Sunderland man justified his inclusion with a polished defensive display. It was the Northern Ireland international’s first league start since Boxing Day.

Pulis said: “I thought McNair was fantastic, I thought we played really, really well and we restricted a very, very good Stoke team.

Pulis added: "I think they've lost only one in 11 games so it's pleasing in that respect but we've got to do a little bit better going forward.

“He's had to wait a long time and Paddy's wanted to play in midfield and we've found it hard to find him a place in there. But he has been very, very good, he's worked hard, obviously he's desperate to play. He's played that position inside before and he looked very comfortable today.

“The problem you have is years and years ago when you only had 13 or 14 senior pros there was only two or three you had to keep happy, the rest of the team were happy because they were playing.

“Now there's 28, 29, 30 senior players in Championship squads never mind the Premier League so you have more players unhappy than you have happy.

“Managing that side of it is difficult at times because they all want to play and they all believe they should play. It's part of management people maybe don't recognise or understand.”

Pulis left Stoke after seven years of success in May 2013 and that was his second spell at the club.  He said: “I've got great respect for Stoke and the people there and we had time to build something there, you had time to put something in place and you don't get that anymore now because people now want instant success and to be honest instant success doesn't always happen. The majority of success is built on very sound footings.

“Clubs should understand and realise and recognise that there's more to it than that. But I'm really pleased that we won.

“Laura, my daughter, is still a massive Stoke supporter and her three children today were mascots but wearing Boro kits, I made sure of that.”

Stoke City showed plenty of ambition and ability but were let down by missing numerous good chances. Rather than dwell on the way Assombalonga scored, Potters boss Nathan Jones was more disappointed with the way his team failed to convert chances.

Jones said: “The only two things I am disappointed with are the start and then the cutting edge. We haven’t taken one of the umpteen chances we had.

“To be fair to Tony they had to grind it out and they did, but I can’t fault what we were doing. If we had taken ten per cent of the opportunities we had then we would have won."