ON paper, Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher form one of the most exciting attacking partnerships in the Championship. On the pitch, however, they have been apart more often than they have been together.

Signed within nine days of each other in the summer of 2017, the pair have rarely found themselves forming a pairing in attack. For half of their first season together, Fletcher was on loan at Sunderland. Under Tony Pulis, Assombalonga often struggled to hold down a place in the team. Last season, when Jonathan Woodgate was in charge, while they were often in the same starting line-up, Fletcher tended to play as a wide attacker, cutting in from the left.

This season, however, Neil Warnock intends to treat them differently. Having watched the duo gel successfully at the end of last term, when they combined to score eight goals in the final eight matches, the Middlesbrough manager intends to field them as a partnership in the opening weeks of the new campaign.

Last Friday’s Carabao Cup win over Shrewsbury Town, when Fletcher scored two of Boro’s four goals, was a decent start. This Friday’s Championship opener at Watford represents an even more high-profile opportunity to prove that two goalscoring heads are better than one.

“We’ve been together at the club for a long time, but we’ve never really had that chance to play consistently as a partnership,” said Fletcher. “I’ve talked a lot about how me and Britt get on – he’s one of the best strikers in the league, and if you look at the two of us together, then I certainly wouldn’t want to be a defender playing against us if we’re on one of our best days.

“We want to get a run, but to stay in the team, you have to score goals. That’s the case now, and it’ll be the case if the manager brings in another couple of strikers. That’ll benefit us and push us every week to be at our best. At the minute, me and Britt have the shirts – now it’s our job to keep them.”

They also have the unwavering trust of their manager, something that has not always been the case during their respective Boro careers.

Warnock’s decision to hand Assombalonga the captain’s armband following the departure of George Friend highlights the depth of his faith in Boro’s record signing, while the Boro boss’ willingness to repeatedly talk up Fletcher is a marked contrast to the attitude of some of his predecessors.

Whereas Pulis tended to prioritise defensive organisation, Warnock wants his Boro team to play on the front foot, an approach that has been warmly received by the attacking players in his squad.

“I think we’re a threat when we get on the front foot,” said Fletcher. “It’s about putting the pressure on the opposition, and making them have to defend.

“Obviously, different managers have different styles, and what works for some, doesn’t work for others. With Neil, it’s like a breath of fresh air really, to be so attackingly fluid. He wants us to get forward and create chances, and I think we’ve been doing that. We could have had a few more the other night (against Shrewsbury), so it’s really good. We’re all happy, and excited for the new season to start.”

Fletcher proved his well-being with two well-taken goals, and the 24-year-old is delighted to be up and running.

“It’ll give me a lot of confidence going into the new season, and it’s really just carrying on that form that I had towards the end of last season as well,” he said. “I knew it was important for me to get off to a good start, so to get two goals, I’m delighted.”

In a national newspaper interview yesterday, Warnock reaffirmed his desire to push for promotion this season. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” he said. “I want to be challenging at the top.”

Such an ambition might seem far-fetched given that Boro only avoided relegation to League One on the final day of last season, but Warnock’s ambition is clearly infectious and Fletcher sees no reason why things cannot be markedly different this term.

“We’re definitely optimistic,” he said. “The manager’s track record obviously speaks for itself. He’s had a number of promotions, and he knows this league inside-out. He knows what it takes to get out.

“He believes in us. We need some players to compete and put pressure on us because you need a squad in this league, but there’s a real buzz around at the minute. Maybe the expectations from outside aren’t too high, but we don’t mind that. We’re looking forward to the season.”