JONATHAN WOODGATE believes Britt Assombalonga has shown with a pre-season hat-trick why the striker should lead Middlesbrough’s attack in the Championship over the next ten months.

On a night when Woodgate wasn’t commenting on reports that Martin Braithwaite is on the verge of a permanent return to Leganes, Assombalonga proved with a brilliant performance in the penalty area why he is wanted at the Riverside.

Despite plenty of interest in the club’s record £15m buy from Sheffield United and Fulham, Assombalonga is a front-man who could yet be staying put because his new boss is a huge fan of his.

And the former Nottingham Forest man showed why with a fine hat-trick at Salford City to help secure a 3-1 win over the Football League new-boys, on his first pre-season outing after a summer with Congo on Africa Cup of Nations duty.

“Britt Assombalonga is a Middlesbrough player for the future. And now,” said Woodgate, speaking at the Peninsula Stadium.

“Britt will score you goals wherever he plays. His record shows it. If he gets an arm round him, gets that confidence he will score goals.

“The key when he is going through a sticky patch, it’s to stick with him. Stay with him, keep him in the firing line. Sometimes when you might take him out, he could get one off his knee or something, he is a fantastic lad and I like him as a lad as well.

“They were proper finishes tonight. His second was a proper finish, how sweet did he catch it? The first he was in the right place and the third he has got to the back post. We have Robbie Keane who will work hard with the strikers.

“I gave him ten days off! He is a scorer, he wants to score and play. It was important to get those ten days in. I didn’t need him for the first few pre-season games, I want him not to flat line.”

While Assombalonga was on fire there was no sign of Braithwaite for the second game in a row, with the official club line citing an illness. Reports in Spain, though, suggest he is on the brink of a 6m euros switch to Leganes.

“Martin is getting linked with every Tom, Dick and Harry. Martin is a good player and he would be a success at this football club,” said Woodgate.

“I haven’t heard a thing, all I know is he didn’t play today because he hasn’t got over his sickness and diarrhoea, so … that’s how it is.

“Nothing is official yet and I just know he hasn't been well enough to play.”

Woodgate was asked if Braithwaite’s sale would help his chances of adding to his squad. Woodgate, who used the Dane at Hartlepool, said: “I will cross that bridge when we get to it (if he leaves).

“I know what targets I want. Neil Bausor and Adrian Bevington know. I have left it with them. They are doing the rest. We know what we want, they know exactly where we are.”

While Rudy Gestede was nursing a hamstring problem, Assombalonga took his chance to shine – and left the ground all smiles.

He scored two in the first half, one a stunner, and completed his hat-trick in the second half before he was substituted.

Middlesbrough – thumped 5-1 at Heideheim on Saturday - had a few early chances, with Daniel Ayala and Paddy McNair directing headers towards goal from corners, and Ashley Fletcher fired an effort wide.

Salford had a spell, testing the visitors. Goalkeeper Aynsley Pears, watched by his father and former Boro keeper Stephen, was frustrated when he made a strong save to deny a header from Liam Hogan, only for Lois Maynard to nod in the rebound unmarked on 20 minutes.

Immediately after that Salford should have had two. Pears made a brilliant stop to deny former Hartlepool striker Devante Rodney, who had robbed Ryan Shotton on the edge of his box. The second opportunity was drilled wide this time.

Then Middlesbrough, and Assombalonga, got going again. With ten minutes remaining in the opening period, Johnson’s deep cross to the back post was headed down and inside the net by the striker.

Last season’s top scorer hit a better goal on the stroke of half-time. This time he volleyed sweetly inside the middle of goalkeeper Kyle Letheren’s net first time with stunning power after arriving to meet McNair’s delivery to the edge of the area.

Middlesbrough took command and were rewarded with Assombalonga’s third. The £15m man slid in at the back post with 23 minutes remaining to convert Hayden Coulson’s brilliant low cross from the left.

That was his last action before Assombalonga – who scored a hat-trick at Hartlepool last pre-season when Woodgate was in charge of the Boro team at Victoria Park - was replaced and Middlesbrough looked comfortable after that.

Middlesbrough: Pears; Howson, Ayala, Shotton, Coulson; Clayton, Wing, McNair; Johnson, Fletcher; Assombalonga (Tavernier 67). Subs (not used): Mejias (gk), Spence, Stubbs, Malley, Saville, Jones.