NEIL WARNOCK’S Middlesbrough reign began in dream fashion as his side ran out deserved 2-0 winners over relegation rivals Stoke City.

Four days after his appointment as Jonathan Woodgate’s successor was confirmed, Warnock watched his new side claim a precious victory that lifts them to 19th position in the Championship table, two points clear of the drop zone with seven games to play.

Ashley Fletcher headed home Patrick Roberts’ free-kick to break the deadlock in the first half, and while James McClean hit the post as Stoke threatened to rally after the interval, Marcus Tavernier’s 62nd-minute strike ensured all three points would be heading to Teesside.

Tavernier scored less than a minute after leaving the substitutes’ bench as he span infield before drilling a low shot into the corner.

Warnock made six changes in his first team selection as Boro boss, with Djed Spence, Marvin Johnson, George Saville, Roberts, Britt Assombalonga and Fletcher all returning to the starting side.

Rudy Gestede was nowhere to be seen, and just prior to kick-off, Boro released a statement announcing that the striker had failed to sign a contract extension to the end of the season and had therefore left the club. Having scored just eight goals in his three-and-a-half years on Teesside, he will not be missed.

Warnock demands effort and organisation as a minimum from his teams, and on both of those scores, Boro’s new boss will have been delighted with his side’s efforts from the off.

With Spence pouring forward to support Roberts down the right-hand side, and both Assombalonga and Fletcher working hard to close down their opponents, the Teessiders were bright and industrious throughout, a marked contrast to their much more staid efforts last weekend.

Only a crucial interception from former Boro trainee Danny Batth prevented Assombalonga from reaching Fletcher’s early low cross, and Boro threatened again shortly after as Fletcher glanced a header from a Roberts free-kick narrowly wide of the target.

The pair would link up again as Boro opened the scoring shortly before the half-hour mark, but in between times, Dejan Stojanovic made a crucial save to prevent Stoke claiming the lead.

James McClean got ahead of his marker to flick in a first-time volley after Sam Clucas crossed from the left, but Stojanovic displayed superb reflexes to tip the ball over the crossbar.

It was a crucial save as, eight minutes later, Boro were ahead. Roberts whipped over an excellent free-kick from the right, and having stolen ahead of his marker, Fletcher glanced a header into the bottom left-hand corner.

It was Fletcher’s 11th goal of the season in all competitions, and made Jonathan Woodgate’s decision to leave him out of last weekend’s starting line-up all the more baffling.

Boro almost claimed a second before the break when both Assombalonga and Paddy McNair both narrowly failed to connect with Spence’s driven delivery across the face of the six-yard box, and another chance went begging on the stroke of half-time when Saville failed to produce a clean connection after Fletcher picked him out from close to the byline.

Stoke were second best in the opening period, but the hosts should really have equalised within the opening 20 seconds of the second half.

Tyrese Campbell slid over a low cross from the right, and Tom Ince’s dummy left McClean in a pocket of space at the back post. The former Sunderland winger had most of the goal to aim at, but his low shot cannoned into Stojanovic’s legs, enabling the Boro goalkeeper to make his second crucial save of the afternoon.

McClean was the key figure at the start of the second half as five minutes after missing his first opportunity, the Irishman spurned another golden opportunity by heading against the woodwork.

Spence’s defensive frailties were exposed as he was caught ball-watching as Tommy Smith crossed from the right, but while McClean was left with a free header as a result, his effort cannoned against the left-hand post.

With Stoke having started the second half strongly, Warnock made the first substitution of his Boro reign on the hour mark. It could not have gone any better as within a minute of leaving the bench, Tavernier was doubling the Teessiders’ lead.

It was a goal all of his own making, with the replacement picking the ball up down the right before spinning past McClean, heading infield and unleashing an excellent 20-yard strike that arrowed into the bottom corner.

George Friend blocked Nick Powell’s strike moments later as Stoke tried to rally, but the Potters’ afternoon went from bad to worse as Powell was dismissed with one minute left.

Having been booked for fouling Lewis Wing close to the touchline 60 seconds earlier, Powell fouled Tavernier in an identical fashion at an identical spot and was deservedly dismissed.