SHORTLY before he was sacked, Jonathan Woodgate claimed that had Patrick Roberts not spent six months on the sidelines nursing a hamstring injury, Middlesbrough would not have found themselves in a relegation fight. The former Boro boss did not get a lot right during his time in charge on Teesside, but on that score, he was probably spot on.

Roberts, a two-time title winner in Scotland with Celtic, has struggled to live up to his billing since joining on loan from Manchester City in January. Indeed, such was the inconsistent nature of his performances, he didn’t even start the two games prior to last night’s trip to Reading.

He was back in the starting side at the Madejski Stadium though, and when his temporary employers needed him most, he delivered a performance that could go a long way to keeping Boro in the Championship.

His pinpoint first-half cross was influential enough, setting up Ashley Fletcher for the glanced header that cancelled out Liam Moore’s opener for the Royals.

But it was his intervention with eight minutes left, turning one point into three, that really transformed the complexion of Boro’s position with two games remaining.

Six minutes after wasting what to that point had been the best opportunity of the game with a tame effort that was directed straight at the Reading goalkeeper, Roberts swept home a neat first-time finish to convert Marvin Johnson’s cut-back from the left.

It was the winger’s first goal in a Middlesbrough shirt, sparking jubilant celebrations from the visiting dug-out that echoed around an empty Madejski. The job is not quite done yet, but from a position of considerable danger, Boro can breathe much easier as they had into their final two games.

Warnock’s decision to recall Roberts proved a masterstroke, and the veteran boss’ other big calls also proved justified. Aynsley Pears was solid in goal after being recalled to replace Dejan Stojanovic, while Anfernee Dijksteel, handed a first start since November to replace the injured Ryan Shotton, who has played his final game for the club, was also strong and resolute.

Like Roberts, Marcus Tavernier returned to the starting side to provide some welcome energy and creativity. Neil Warnock might say he does not know what some of his players are going to do on the pitch, but if they turn in two more performances like this, he will not be complaining.

The Boro boss reverted to a flat back four in an attempt to make his side more resolute, moving Djed Spence from wing-back to a more attacking wide role, and the ploy worked well. Despite Reading boasting plenty of pace in attack, the hosts never looked like causing the kind of havoc that was inflicted by Bristol City at the weekend.

It was the best part of half-an-hour before either side mustered anything that even resembled an effort at goal, and with George Friend marshalling the Boro defence alongside Dael Fry, and both Jonny Howson and George Saville showing no desire to stray from in front of the back four, the visitors initially looked much more solid than they had against Bristol City’s livewire attack.

However, that changed when Saville was briefly forced from the field in the 33rd minute. The Northern Irishman took the ball flush in the face as he blocked Gabriel Osho’s cross and was ushered off after a lengthy period of treatment. Boro had to defend a corner without him, and despite the frantic urgings of Warnock and Leo Percovich, who were barking instructions from the touchline, their organisation fell to pieces.

Michael Olise whipped in a cross that was missed at the front post, and Moore was left completely unmarked as he stabbed home from inside the six-yard box.

Suddenly, Boro were creaking and Olise thought he should have had a penalty when Pears raced from his line and fell at the winger’s feet as he raced clear. Referee Andy Woolmer waved play on, but Pears was nearly beaten anyway moments later as, from the following move, John Swift broke towards the corner of the penalty area before curling a low shot against the base of the left-hand post.

The visitors desperately needed something to turn the tide in their favour, and it arrived on the stroke of half-time courtesy of Fletcher.

The forward had been the visitors’ chief threat throughout the first half, drilling a weak long-range effort straight at Rafael in the Reading goal before drifting to the right to fire over a cross that Osho almost sliced into his own goal.

The resultant corner was cleared, but after the ball was recycled to Roberts on the right, the Manchester City loanee swung over a teasing cross that Fletcher glanced home. It was a very similar goal to the one Fletcher scored at Stoke in Warnock’s first game in charge, but with Hull being massacred at Wigan’s DW Stadium – the Tigers conceded a remarkable seven goals before the interval last night – it was arguably even more important in the context of the relegation fight.

Roberts also set up Fletcher’s goal at the bet365 Stadium, and having been moved infield, the 23-year-old appeared to relish the extra freedom he was afforded last night as he roamed in the ‘number ten’ position.

He linked effectively with Fletcher again shortly after the hour mark, teeing up the striker for a low drive that Rafael got down well to parry.

With Roberts and Tavernier both trying their utmost to support Fletcher in his lone-striker role, Boro remained a threat throughout last night’s game, although with Warnock showing his exasperation in the technical area whenever Saville or Howson strayed out of position, Reading continued to cause problems of their own.

Yakou Meite should really have done better with the 53rd-minute header he directed off target – again, Boro’s marking in the 18-yard box left a lot to be desired – and the hosts threatened again when Moore headed wide from a corner.

But it was the Teessiders who should really have been celebrating with 14 minutes left. Roberts, whose threat increased as the Reading defence desired, displayed superb dribbling abilities as he cut in from the right and darted across the face of the box. The penalty area seemed to open up for him, but he drilled a low shot straight at Rafael.

No matter. Six minutes later, and after Johnson pulled the ball back from close to the byline, the winger was firing home the goal that takes Boro a giant step closer to safety.

It was a slick finish, with Roberts angling his body into the optimal position before sweeping a low finish past Rafael’s left hand.

With Hull eventually crashing to an 8-0 defeat, Boro’s situation has eased considerably ahead of their final two fixtures, this Saturday’s home game with Cardiff City and next Wednesday’s trip to Sheffield Wednesday.

When Warnock needed a performance most, his players delivered, and the post-match huddle on an otherwise deserted pitch spoke volumes about the importance of what had just occurred. The 71-year-old has seen enough not to take anything for granted, but the task he was given when he agreed to join Boro has almost been achieved.