A NEW YEAR, and a time for new beginnings. Rudy Gestede did not make a single league start in the whole of 2019, so more than anyone else in the Middlesbrough squad, the striker would have been celebrating as the chimes of Big Ben rang out on Tuesday night. One day into 2020, and the new year has already proved significantly better than the last.

Offered an opportunity to be his side’s first foot at Preston, Gestede rolled back the years to deliver the kind of barnstorming centre-forward performance that has proved all too rare in a Middlesbrough shirt.

He opened the scoring with an overhead volley, tormented Preston’s defenders from first minute to last, and led the celebrations as Ben Davies’ calamitous second-half own goal confirmed Boro’s thoroughly-deserved win.

“Rudy’s a strong character, and when he plays like that, he’s a real handful,” said an understandably satisfied Jonathan Woodgate. “There’s not many better than Rudy at doing what he does.

“I told Rudy he was playing two days before the West Brom game. I said, ‘That’s going to be your game, so go and get yourself set. You are going to be playing in that game’. I thought he was absolutely unplayable at times.”

Who would have thought the start of a new decade would have heralded such a radical change in fortunes for a player who spent more of 2019 on the treatment table than the pitch? Gestede’s recent substitute appearances had been sufficiently effective to persuade Woodgate to hand him a first league start of the season. It is safe to say he made the most of it.

The 31-year-old has always been an awkward player for opponents to mark, and sure enough, his physical presence immediately altered the focus of Boro’s attacking. For the first time all season, the visitors were able to relieve pressure by banging long balls in the general direction of their centre-forward, and when they were able to offer a little more in the way of finesse from the wide positions, Gestede was able to take advantage.

He glanced an early header narrowly wide after Marvin Johnson hung up a cross from the left, and went close again when Djed Spence’s centre from the opposite flank enabled him to direct another headed effort wide of the upright.

It felt as though his time would come, and sure enough, it was Gestede making the difference as Boro opened the scoring five minutes before the break. Paddy McNair, on as a substitute for the injured Daniel Ayala, swung a free-kick into the box, Preston’s defenders failed to deal with the danger, and when Marcus Tavernier nodded the ball down, Gestede swivelled adroitly to direct a hooked overhead volley into the net.

It was the striker’s first goal for almost two years, ending a barren run that stretched to February 2018, when he bagged a brace in a win over Hull City. There have been plenty of ups and downs since then, and with his contract due to expire in the summer, Gestede is almost certainly approaching the end of his Middlesbrough career. On this evidence, though, he could yet prove an extremely valuable asset in the second half of the season.

His impressive showing continued after the break as he glanced a near-post header wide from a corner before drilling a low shot at Preston goalkeeper Declan Rudd after Tavernier’s mazy run had taken him half the length of the field.

With Ashley Fletcher also causing a succession of problems as he picked up where he had left off with his long-range howitzer at the Hawthorns, Boro’s two-pronged attack repeatedly troubled a Preston defence that was left exposed as the home side attempted to chase the game in the second half.

The hosts’ backline never looked comfortable, with the pressure eventually telling in the 62nd minute. With Fletcher at his back as he chased down a flick-on from Gestede, Davies panicked as he tried to shepherd the ball back towards his own goal, prodding what can only have been an attempted back-pass past his own goalkeeper. It was a dreadful error, but was reflective of the extent to which Boro’s razor-sharp counter-attacking had troubled their opponents.

With Gestede impressing at one end of the field, Middlesbrough needed some collective resistance at the other, and having reverted to the five-man defensive shape that was abandoned at West Brom, Woodgate watched his players hold out with impressive assurance.

Ayala was the best player on the pitch for the opening half-hour, winning a succession of headers against his former team-mate, David Nugent, but even when the Spaniard was forced off with a muscular injury towards the end of the first half, Boro’s defensive solidity was not threatened.

McNair slotted in as the central of the three centre-halves with no fuss whatsoever – the Northern Irishman’s versatility has been a huge asset all season – and the recalled Johnson proved a more than able wing-back deputy for Hayden Coulson.

Aynsley Pears produced a fine save midway through the second half, turning Ben Pearson’s long-range strike around the post, but for a side with aspirations of making it to the Premier League, Preston were remarkably unthreatening.

“I gave them Christmas day off, so they’re definitely repaying it, that’s for sure,” said Woodgate. “I thought the performance they put in was outstanding. When Ayala went off, I had to play with two number eights at centre-back. Jonny Howson? I can’t describe how much I love Jonny Howson. And I thought Paddy was excellent when he came in alongside Dael (Fry) too.”