MIDDLESBROUGH took a giant step towards Championship safety as they finally ended their 12-game winless run at Charlton Athletic at the weekend – but Jonathan Woodgate has still told his players to expect a “dogfight” in the final nine games of the season.

Paddy McNair’s first-half winner secured a 1-0 success at the Valley that enabled Boro to leapfrog their opponents and climb to 19th position in the table, two points clear of the bottom three.

Given that their next four matches pit them against Swansea, Stoke, Hull and QPR, all sides outside the current top ten, things are looking much brighter than they were a couple of weeks ago, when the Teessiders plunged into the relegation positions.

However, while he was impressed with his players’ performance and commitment on Saturday, Woodgate is taking nothing for granted as the season heads towards its climax.

“All results are big at this time, but all we can do is look to the next game at home to Swansea,” said the Boro boss. “Let’s not put a points figure on what it takes to stay up.

“Let’s take it one game at a time because we’re still in a dogfight – there’s still a long way to go. Don’t get excited because we’ve won one game and get complacent. That won’t be happening in the dressing room. We’ve got a big game coming up against Swansea and that has to be the focus.”

Woodgate had seen signs of improvement in recent games against Leeds and Nottingham Forest, even though those two matches only brought one point. The upward trajectory continued at the Valley, with Boro outplaying their relegation rivals for the vast majority of the game.

“If you saw the last two performances against Leeds and Forest, we were miles better,” said Woodgate. “Here, I thought we were exceptional at times. We created a lot of opportunities, it could have been more than 1-0 and I thought the team in general was very good. I asked for more intensity, and I thought that was a lot better.”

Woodgate’s decision to drop Aynsley Pears for Dejan Stojanovic proved justified, with the debutant goalkeeper stepping in to keep a clean sheet on his senior debut.

Pears found himself on the substitutes’ bench after making a costly late error in last Monday’s draw with Forest, but Woodgate insists the youngster will get plenty of chances in the future.

“I think Aynsley has done unbelievably well, but I just thought with ten games to go, Dejan has played a lot of competitive games and has done a lot better in training recently,” said the Boro boss. “He’s played a lot of Under-23s games, so I thought he deserved a chance.

“From where Aynsley has come from last year, playing in non-league for Gateshead, he’s done absolutely unbelievable. His attitude again in the warm-up, before the game, when I told him was magnificent. He’s a mature kid for a 21-year-old.”