NEIL WARNOCK admits it will be impossible to solve Middlesbrough’s deep-rooted goalscoring problems in the next three matches – but the Boro boss is nevertheless confident his side can fire their way to safety despite their issues in front of goal.

Boro head to Reading’s Madejski Stadium for their penultimate away game of the season this evening looking to extend the two-point gap that currently separates them from the relegation zone.

Saturday’s 3-1 home defeat to Bristol City ensured the Teessiders remain in deep trouble close to the foot of the table, with Warnock once again bemoaning his side’s inability to convert the chances that came their way.

Boro’s tally of 43 goals from 43 league games is easily the worst in the Championship – no other side in the division has scored fewer than 46 – but the evidence of the last few years suggests it should not have been wholly unexpected.

Last season, Boro’s total of 49 goals from 46 games was the worst among the top 15 sides in the second tier, while the season before, when Tony Pulis guided the Teessiders into the play-offs, they were the lowest scorers in the top six.

“When you look at the problems the club has had scoring goals for the last three years, it has to be about more than tactics, doesn’t it,” said Warnock. “To be near the bottom of the Championship’s scorers for three years on the trot is incredible, really. I didn’t quite believe it when I was looking through the stats. That’s where we are though, and you just have to get on with it.”

On paper, Boro boast one of the most desirable strike-forces in the Championship. Britt Assombalonga cost a club-record £15m when he joined Boro in 2017 and boasts a proven track record of scoring in the second tier, while Ashley Fletcher was regarded as one of the most exciting young forwards in the country when he left Manchester United to join West Ham.

Warnock has played the duo alongside each other in the last few matches, but accepts their goalscoring record over the last two seasons hardly suggests they are a potent attacking pairing. They have claimed 19 goals between them this term, from a combined total of 60 league starts.

“If they’d have played together and done really well as a pair over the last 18 months, then I don’t think the club would be where we are,” admitted the Boro boss. “I’m not sure they have been a (good) pair. From what I’ve seen, they’ve had moments together where they’ve gelled – I thought Millwall was probably the best they’ve played since I’ve been here.

“When I look at someone like Britt, I think he’s really trying his best, in these tough circumstances. He’s playing every game and putting so much in that I do feel for him a little bit at the moment. I said to him, ‘There’s just three more to go’, and I’m keeping my eye on him all the time if I’m honest because he’s such an important player.”

Warnock was anticipating a battle when he agreed to replace Jonathan Woodgate last month, but despite his vast experience, the 71-year-old admits a few things have surprised him during his time on Teesside.

He did not expect to inherit such an unbalanced squad, and has regularly cited a lack of ‘natural defenders’ as a key handicap he is having to try to overcome. He also did not expect so many teams to be involved in the final throes of the relegation battle, with just six points currently separating the bottom eight teams in the division.

“If I’m honest, I have to say it’s not totally been as I expected, but nothing is straightforward in football,” he said. “It’s like a game of cards – you have to play the hand you’ve got. That’s what we’ve got to do now, and get the lads firing.

“I knew that there were good players here, but I also knew that there were deficiencies in the squad. The biggest disappointment for me was probably at Hull. My teams don’t normally do things like that. I can pretty much guarantee that if one of my teams is playing like that late on, we don’t usually lose the game

“I always knew it was going to be a battle – and it is. I didn’t know there would be so many clubs involved, if I’m honest. I thought it would be three or four, but there’s seven or eight still involved now.”

Warnock suffered another blow this week when St Etienne refused to extend Harold Moukoudi’s loan deal to the end of the season, opting instead to recall the defender to France.

“We tried to get him to the end of the season, but they have a cup final at the end of this month and they wanted Harold for that,” he explained. “In fairness to the boy, he wanted to stay and help us, but the club insisted so we had no option. In fact, we were fortunate to get him for the two or three games that we had him for.

“He was just getting fit as well. He was just starting to look strong enough, but that’s Sod’s law really. It’s just how it goes. We’ve just got to get more out of what we’ve got, and claw over that line.”

Middlesbrough (probable, 5-3-2): Stojanovic; Spence, Fry, Shotton, Friend, Johnson; Saville, Howson, McNair; Fletcher, Assombalonga.