WHEN Jonathan Woodgate left his beloved Middlesbrough for Tottenham in 2008, he admits it was one of the most gut-wrenching moments of his career. More than a decade on, and when the Teessider returns to a rebuilt White Hart Lane in just over a week’s time, it will be a far happier experience. A second bite at Premier League opposition represents an early high point in his fledgling managerial career.

If the last four league matches have represented the turning of a corner, this was an afternoon that cemented Middlesbrough’s upwardly-mobile momentum. Not only did the Teessiders take the lead against a Tottenham side brimming with players that featured in the Champions League final as recently as May, they also forced Jose Mourinho to rip up his tactical blueprint and throw caution to the wind by tossing on a succession of forwards from the bench.

True, Mourinho’s changes resulted in a Tottenham equaliser, with Lucas Moura heading home to cancel out Ashley Fletcher’s opener, but the final whistle confirmed a moral victory for Woodgate, whose work over the last couple of months has transformed Boro from a confidence-sapped side hurtling towards the foot of the Championship to a well-drilled unit sweeping all before them.

Woodgate’s achievements are even more notable given the injury issues he has had to contend with, with yesterday’s display of organisation and resilience coming despite the presence of two midfielders playing at centre-half.

Jonny Howson and Paddy McNair were brilliant throughout, ably supported by Dael Fry alongside them. Tomas Mejias, selected ahead of Aynsley Pears for the first FA Cup fixture of the season, made two crucial late saves, but barring the last ten minutes, when Spurs were throwing caution to the wind in search of a winner, Boro’s goal was surprisingly unthreatened.

Who needs natural centre-halves? With Daniel Ayala unavailable after injuring his ankle at Preston, Woodgate opted to stick with the patched-together formation that finished the New Year’s Day win at Deepdale, even though that meant continuing with Howson and McNair as central defenders. Carry on playing like this, and it might be impossible to restore the duo to midfield.

There was no Harry Kane for the two stand-in stoppers to contend with, but Spurs were still able to name Lucas, Heung-Min Son, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen in their starting line-up. Not, however, that the quartet were able to muster much of a threat for much of the afternoon.

The visitors dominated possession from the off, but were forced to play the vast majority of their football in unthreatening areas of the field. With Djed Spence and Hayden Coulson tempering their attacking instincts in order to play as deep-lying wing-backs, Boro defended with five men strung across the width of their 18-yard box.

Spurs’ attempts to get behind them were doomed to failure – on the one occasion Son broke beyond the Boro backline to reach Lucas’ through ball, Mejias was alert to the danger and raced from his line to clear – and it did not take long for Mourinho to start cutting a frustrated figure in the opposition technical area.

Woodgate was much more content for most of the afternoon, with Adam Clayton and George Saville providing further protection to an already well-drilled defence.

Understandably, Boro’s main priority was to close down Tottenham’s creative forces, and as a result, their own attacking forays were limited in scope and regularity.

That said, though, the hosts fashioned the two best chances of the first half in a frantic ten-second spell that would have seen them break the deadlock had it not been for a fine double-save from Spurs goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga.

The Argentinian, deputising for the injured Hugo Lloris, got down smartly to keep out Fry’s header after the defender ghosted in at the back post to meet McNair’s free-kick. Fry kept the ball alive on the byline, but when Saville cracked in the rebound from close to the penalty spot, Gazzaniga threw himself to the ground again to make another excellent stop.

That was really that in terms of Boro’s first-half attacking, but when the hosts fashioned the best opportunity of the game five minutes after the interval, Gazzaniga was unable to prevent them opening the scoring.

Fletcher had barely touched the ball in the opening 50 minutes, but the in-form frontman held his nerve superbly when Saville’s chipped through ball sent him scampering clear of the Spurs defence.

It was debatable whether he was onside or not – Eric Dier might just have been playing him on, but it was one of those slide-rule incidents that VAR would almost certainly have found a reason to rule out had it been in implementation – but from the moment he galloped clear, he never looked like missing.

Gazzaniga came off his line to meet him, but Fletcher, who left Old Trafford in the same summer that Mourinho was appointed as Manchester United boss, dinked home a nonchalant finish to claim his fourth goal in the last five matches.

Mourinho’s response was immediate, with Giovani Lo Celso and Erik Lamela leaving the bench to bolster Spurs’ attacking resources, and it did not take long for his players to deliver their own answer to the questions that were being levelled at them. Eleven minutes after falling behind, Mourinho’s men were level.

Given the quality of Boro’s defending in the opening hour, it was a deeply disappointing goal for the hosts to concede with Serge Aurier’s routine cross from the right exposing an unexpected lack of security in the six-yard box. Lucas peeled off Howson at the back post, and was left with the simple task of nodding past Mejias.

Suddenly, the home side were under the cosh, and they spent the final half-hour trying to repel wave after wave of Tottenham attacks, with the visitors effectively finishing with five forwards on the field.

Mejias was making the first appearance of his second spell as a Boro player, and the Spaniard, once the hero of a penalty shoot-out win at Old Trafford, produced two excellent late saves to secure his side a replay in North London.

He clawed Lamela’s long-range effort around the post before producing the save of the game to deny Lucas, who must have thought he was claiming the winner as he curled towards the bottom corner.

Woodgate has already confirmed Mejias will start in the replay – like the rest of his team-mates, he more than merits a second crack of the whip.