LOUIS VAN GAAL thought he was a centre-half. Tony Pulis wasn’t really sure what he was, but when he gave him a chance at all, it tended to be as a full-back. When it comes to Paddy McNair’s best position, though, Jonathan Woodgate is in no doubt as to where the 24-year-old should be playing.

“That was his first goal? Well, how many starts has he had in the centre of midfield?” asked Woodgate, after McNair opened his Middlesbrough account with an accomplished finish against Millwall. “That’s where I want him playing.”

Michael O’Neill, watching on from the Riverside stands, would no doubt have concurred. The Northern Ireland manager has long seen McNair as a goalscoring central midfielder, but apart from Chris Coleman, who stationed the former Manchester United trainee at the head of his midfield as Sunderland crashed out of the Championship, none of McNair’s other domestic managers have shared the same view. Until now.

Presiding over a squad that is hardly overflowing with goalscoring options, Woodgate has identified McNair’s ability to break purposefully into the box as a major asset. Hence his insistence that his days as a utility player filling in across the backline are at an end.

Woodgate wants McNair to be a key part of his midfield, and wants him to continue making the kind of runs that enabled him to latch on to Ashley Fletcher’s through ball at the weekend before slotting a composed finish past Millwall goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski. When the Middlesbrough head coach talks about his side playing on the front foot, he has McNair’s approach to the game in mind.

“Paddy’s an old-school type player who can go box to box with the ball,” said Woodgate. “You can see how he runs with speed, he runs with a real desire to try to commit players. I thought he deserved the goal on his second-half performance.

“He’s got that finishing in him. I want my number eights to score between eight and ten goals a season. If they do that, they’ll have a good season, and Paddy can do that.”

While some of Middlesbrough’s midfield options are fairly interchangeable, with Adam Clayton, George Saville and Jonny Howson all capable of performing broadly the same role, McNair and Lewis Wing are the two central players most likely to contribute to the goals tally.

Wing got his season up and running when he fired in from distance at Luton on the opening weekend, and now McNair has broken a domestic duck that stretched all the way back to the final game of Sunderland’s relegation season, when he found the net against Wolves.

His goal capped a much-improved second-half performance from Boro, whose first-half lethargy would have been punished had Darren Randolph not produced a superb fingertip save from Ben Thompson and Clayton not headed against the underside of his own crossbar as he cleared a goal-bound header from Matt Smith off the line.

Millwall swarmed all over Boro before the interval – hence Neil Harris’ desperation to maintain his side’s impetus that was manifested in the clash with Leo Percovich that saw the Millwall boss sent to the stands – but things changed markedly after the break.

Marvin Johnson added some pace and urgency on the flank after replacing the ineffectual Marcus Browne at the break, McNair started playing five or ten yards further up the field, and whereas Millwall’s midfielders had dictated the tempo of the game before the interval, it was Boro’s playmakers pulling the strings in the second half.

McNair’s goal broke the deadlock with 20 minutes left, although Woodgate was adamant that his side should also have two penalties, first when Mahlon Romeo blocked Britt Assombalonga’s header with his arm, and then when Johnson’s shot cannoned off two different arms as it was blocked in the box.

“Sooner or later we’ll get the rub of the green, but it’s not very often you get two in a game that are blatant handballs,” said Woodgate. “I’m not going to start complaining, that’s life. You reap what you sow sometimes, and decisions will turn for us, but they are blatant, blatant handballs.”

Had Boro been awarded either of the spot-kicks, they might well have claimed what would have been a second victory in the space of five days. Instead, their lead lasted just six minutes before Smith nodded a corner back across the face of goal and substitute Tom Bradshaw prodded home from close range with his first touch after leaving the bench.

“You can see from the games we’re playing well in one half but not the other,” said Woodgate. “We need to put it all together, and it just takes time to get it like that. The players are buying in to it - you can see what we are trying to do in either a first half or a second half – we just need to glue it together.”