JONATHAN WOODGATE has rejected suggestions that Middlesbrough are embroiled in a ‘relegation dogfight’, but insists he has a group of players capable of scrapping for their lives if Championship survival is on the line in the final few weeks of the season.

Boro host Fulham at the Riverside this afternoon, and while the game might have been billed as a potential promotion battle at the start of the campaign, the reality is somewhat different.

While Fulham sit one place below the play-off places, Boro find themselves one place above the relegation zone after winning just two of their opening 13 games.

The history books show that a majority of teams that find themselves in the bottom third after the opening quarter of the season tend to stay there for the remainder of the campaign, but Woodgate is adamant his side will haul themselves clear of trouble once they begin to turn performances into points.

That can be easier said than done when you are the joint-lowest scorers in the league, but Boro’s head coach continues to adopt a positive outlook. And even if the rest of the season does turn into a scrap for survival he is adamant he has enough quality, experience and fighting spirit to see him through.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a dogfight at the minute because, if we get a few wins, we’ll soon climb up the table,” said Woodgate, who will hand a second senior start to 21-year-old goalkeeper Aynsley Pears this afternoon in the continued absence of established number one Darren Randolph. “We don’t want it to turn into a dogfight, but if it does, I’ve got the players to dog it out.

“I’ve got hardened players, experienced players, with that sprinkling of youth too. If we are in a dogfight, then we’ll maybe have to add in January too. But in terms of the players I’ve got with me at the moment, I certainly wouldn’t be worried about having to go into a fight.”

Woodgate’s optimism stems from the improvement he has seen in his side’s recent play. The home defeat to Sheffield Wednesday was a defensive horror show, and the trip to Birmingham City was a write-off, but since then, Boro performed creditably against West Brom and were the better side for most of Wednesday’s goalless draw at Huddersfield.

They will have to improve again to see off a Fulham side boasting the likes of Tom Cairney, Anthony Knockaert and Aleksandar Mitrovic, but Woodgate sees no reason to panic despite the possibility of his side ending the weekend in the bottom three.

“I’m not worried because the performances are there,” he said. “If you take out the Birmingham game and the Sheff Wed game, then I wouldn’t say there’s been games where we’ve been absolutely annihilated. I’d say in some of the games, we deserved more points than we’ve got.

“That’s why I’m encouraged, because I know it’ll change. That’s what I keep saying to the players. If they play like they have in the last two performances, then they’ll win.

“Whether it be Fulham, whether it be Derby, whether it be QPR, you’ve got to keep believing.

“It’s my job to keep the players onside and keep them believing in what we’re doing. I fully believe the players are onside, fighting for it. You can see the way they’re playing.”

Nevertheless, Woodgate will be warning his players to be mindful of the threat posed by Mitrovic, a player who came close to joining Middlesbrough on loan from Newcastle United before opting for Fulham.

“He’s a Premier League striker playing in the Championship,” he said. “We nearly signed him in Tony Pulis’ first January transfer window.

“We were close to getting him, so he’s always been a target of ours. I think something went on, whatever it was, but we didn’t sign him. If we had done, who knows? He’s a really good player.”