PADDY McNAIR knows what it feels like to play for a Championship club spiralling out of control. Back in the 2017-18 season, the Northern Irishman was one of the few bright sparks in a Sunderland side that crashed into League One amid a Netflix-filmed flurry of heavy defeats, abject performances and off-field strife.

Two years on, and McNair once again finds himself toiling at the wrong end of the Championship table. But while Middlesbrough might have started Saturday’s game at relegation rivals Charlton Athletic in the bottom three, parallels between that horror season on Wearside and current events on the banks of the Tees have always felt misdrawn.

Yes, Middlesbrough travelled to the Valley on the back of a 12-game winless run. Yes, this has been an unexpectedly difficult season, with Jonathan Woodgate’s managerial baptism coinciding with a further bout of cost-cutting that has plunged the Teessiders into the nether reaches of the second tier. Yes, some serious questions need to be asked this summer, most notably in relation to Boro’s dreadful recruitment record in the last few years.

But a club in crisis? It didn’t really feel that way, even as matches against Luton, Barnsley and Wigan resulted in a return of just one point. The wheels weren’t spinning correctly, but they hadn’t fallen off. So, while Saturday’s 1-0 success at Charlton might have been a hard-earned victory that was still in the balance as the Addicks desperately threw balls into the box in the fifth minute of stoppage time, it was neither unwarranted nor completely unexpected despite what had gone before. Boro are in the thick of a relegation battle, but the mood within the camp is not one that is redolent of a team destined for the drop.

“You can’t really compare the situation here to when I was relegated at Sunderland,” said McNair, whose 17th-minute strike proved decisive at the weekend. “It’s chalk and cheese. That (his spell at Sunderland) was obviously really difficult, and it felt as though relegation was probably on the cards for quite a while. It’s never felt anything like that here.

“It’s very different. If you look at our squad, it’s not a group that should be battling to stay in the league. If anything, it should be up at the other end of the table. It hasn’t worked out like that though, mainly because I think we’ve drawn too many games.

“We played Brentford the other week and they were sitting in third after losing ten games and we were sitting in 18th after also having lost ten games. If we could just have turned some of those draws into wins it would be different. Thankfully, we did that here.”

There had been signs of progress in the recent games against Leeds and Nottingham Forest, albeit with proof of Boro’s frailties also evident, and the upward trajectory in terms of performance levels was maintained in South London.

Having toyed with a number of different formations and starting line-ups this season, Woodgate has settled on a 4-2-3-1 system now most of his key senior players are fit, and while that has meant leaving some big names out of the starting side, most notably Ashley Fletcher and Britt Assombalonga, the current line-up looks much better balanced than some of its predecessors.

Rudy Gestede led the line with muscularity and commitment at the weekend, providing the kind of attacking focal point that neither Fletcher nor Assombalonga can muster. Playing off him, Lewis Wing and Marcus Tavernier got themselves into some decent positions in the box, along with Hayden Coulson, who looks even better in an attacking-midfield position than he did at full-back. All three can be guilty of rushing their end product, scuffing shots or choosing the wrong final ball, but their combined energy undoubtedly adds something to Boro’s attacking game.

Behind them, McNair has been restored to his preferred position of central midfield – partly as a result of the astute January acquisition of centre-half Harold Moukoudi – and while Woodgate freely admits it has taken the Northern Irishman a few weeks to rediscover the form he was displaying in the first three months of the season, he was back to his best at the weekend. Strong and purposeful on the front foot, and disciplined and positionally-astute in defence, McNair’s midfield influence was missed when he was repositioned in a back five. Play as he did at the Valley, and he will be a key performer in the final nine games of the season.

“We’re creating a lot of chances, and I feel like we’re more solid at the back, so the balance is there now,” said McNair. “We just need to keep it going.

“It’s been a tough spell. It’s not been nice to go so long without a win, but I think the biggest thing is the number of draws. You look at Derby at home, that was a tough one to take because they scored in the 93rd minute or something, and Birmingham at home was similar because we had so many chances to win the game.

“It just wasn’t happening, but we knew that if we kept playing well, it would turn. Hopefully, with this result, we’re on the other side now and we can start looking upwards.”

There was never really a moment when Saturday’s win was in doubt, with McNair’s first-half strike securing the points. Receiving a square ball from Gestede, who had broken down the right, the former Manchester United trainee steered a deft first-time finish past Charlton goalkeeper Dillon Phillips.

Tavernier and Wing wasted decent opportunities to add to Boro’s lead, but while Charlton threw more and more men forward in an attempt to claim a second-half equaliser, goalkeeper Dejan Stojanovic was not seriously threatened as he made his debut following a January move from Swiss side St Gallen.

It was a big call for Woodgate to drop Aynsley Pears and throw Stojanovic into the team, but it proved the right one as the Macedonian debutant made a couple of routine saves and claimed a couple of dangerous balls into the box.

One of those came in stoppage time, with Stojanovic claiming possession as a relieved Woodgate slumped to his knees in his technical area. Two points clear of the relegation zone, Boro have not achieved anything yet. The tide has turned though, and with their next three matches pitting them against Swansea, Stoke and Hull, the route to safety is at least in view.

“It’s massive to be out of the bottom three,” said McNair. “No player likes being in there, especially at this stage of the season. We’re out of it now.”