IT turned into a nervous finale, but a game that Middlesbrough simply had to win ended with their promotion push back on track.

Wretched for the opening quarter-of-an-hour, and deservedly trailing to Isaac Mbenza’s ninth- minute free-kick, the Teessiders turned things around with their best passage of play for a number of weeks towards the end of the first half.

Duncan Watmore scored an excellent solo goal to level things, before the returning Ashley Fletcher fired Boro into the lead from the penalty spot on the stroke of half-time.

So far, so good. However, just as Neil Warnock’s side looked to be coasting to victory, the controversial dismissal of Paddy McNair with nine minutes left threatened to turn the game against them.

Suddenly, Huddersfield were able to lay siege to the Middlesbrough goal, but while substitute Kieran Phillips thought he had claimed an equaliser with one minute left, his effort rebounded to safety off the inside of the post.

Boro held on to claim their first home victory since mid-December and end a five-game winless run that was threatening to derail their promotion ambitions. It wasn’t the most convincing of successes, but on Pancake Day, they did not fall flat.

Warnock’s changes worked, with Grant Hall adding some ballast to the backline and Fletcher increasing the potency of the Boro attack. Having adopted a cautious approach with both players following their respective returns from long-term injury lay-offs, Saturday’s lacklustre defeat at Derby clearly persuaded Warnock that it was time to release the shackles. It proved a wise move.

Hall made his first start since the third game of the season as part of a remodelled back five, while Fletcher got the nod ahead of both Britt Assombalonga and Chuba Akpom to make his first start since the second game of the campaign. Given that has fellow strikers have managed just nine goals between them, it is safe to say that Fletcher, in particular, has been badly missed.

The 25-year-old claimed his first goal since September’s League Cup brace against Shrewsbury from the penalty spot, but it was the way in which he led the line that was the key to an improvement in Boro’s attacking play.

At Derby at the weekend, both Assombalonga and Akpom failed to provide any kind of focal point for the Teessiders’ attacks. Last night, with Fletcher tying up Huddersfield’s centre-halves as he worked energetically in and around the 18-yard box, Boro’s forward players were able to make a series of incisive breaks in the final third. Crucially, with Fletcher in the side, the likes of Watmore and Neeskens Kebano finally had somebody to play off.

Boro ended the first half on top, but only after they were punished for an extremely sluggish start. The home side barely got into their opponents’ half during the opening skirmishes, and fell behind with only nine minutes on the clock.

Pipa’s driving run towards the 18-yard box seemed to panic the Boro defence, forcing Marc Bola to concede a free-kick close to the edge of the area. Isaac Mbenza stepped up, and Huddersfield’s Belgian forward curled a superb strike that arced over the wall before dipping past Marcus Bettinelli’s right hand.

Mbenza almost added a second goal moments later, breaking into the right-hand side of the area before dragging a low strike across the face of goal, but by the time the Terriers’ goalscorer was forced off with an injury on the half-hour mark, Boro had successfully transformed the momentum of the game.

Watmore was the key to the Teessiders’ improvement, with his drifting runs across the face of Huddersfield’s back four causing a succession of problems and creating pockets of space for both Fletcher and Kebano to exploit.

Kebano’s 29th-minute cross almost resulted in an equaliser, with Grant Hall directing a free header straight at Ryan Schofield, and with Boro’s midfielders becoming increasingly dominant, the hosts claimed a deserved leveller two minutes later.

The opening goal was only their second at the Riverside since the turn of the year, and was a brilliant individual effort from Watmore.

The former Sunderland winger cut in from the right-hand side and wriggled past both Lewis O’Brien and Mahamdou Sarr before steadying himself in the area. He opened up his body to create a shooting chance on his left foot, and curled a superb low finish into the bottom corner.

Suddenly, Boro’s players found themselves swarming all over their opponents in a manner that was reminiscent of the way in which Huddersfield turned around the reverse fixture in West Yorkshire in late November.

Hall nodded home Paddy McNair’s free-kick at the back post, only for his celebrations to be cut short by the assistant’s offside flag, before Fletcher saw a low shot blocked after turning neatly on the edge of the box.

Huddersfield’s defenders were struggling to cope with balls into the area, and Boro took full advantage as they claimed the lead from the penalty spot on the stroke of half-time.

Darnell Fisher met Kebano’s low cross ahead of O’Brien, and was brought down by the full-back’s lunging challenge. Fletcher stepped up, and while his strike was not the cleanest, it squeezed past Schofield’s right hand to result in his first league goal of the season.

Ahead at the interval, Boro’s players adopted a more cautious approach as they defended their lead in the second half.

They still offered a sporadic threat on the break, largely through the always-lively Watmore, but whereas Jonny Howson had been striving to break forward before the interval, his default setting in the second period was to settle in front of Boro’s back five to prevent Huddersfield’s midfielders from penetrating the home side’s backline.

With Sam Morsy also content to sit after the interval, Boro rarely looked like extending their lead, but for all that the Terriers just about shaded possession in the second period, they only really began to threaten in the final 20 minutes.

They came close with 16 minutes left, but while Kieran Phillips met Aaron Rowe’s cross with a glanced front-post header, the ball spun across the face of Boro’s goalline before it was hacked clear.

Fraizer Campbell wasted a good opportunity a few minutes later as he sliced a shot wide from 14 yards, and what should have been a routine finale became significantly more fraught when McNair was dismissed with nine minutes left.

The Boro defender made contact with the ball as he challenged Juninho Bacuna close to the edge of the area, but his studs were showing as he tangled with his opponent and, to the obvious disgust of a furious Warnock, referee Jeremy Simpson brandished a straight red card.

Boro’s ten men spent the final few minutes camped in their own 18-yard box, and were relieved when the woodwork rescued them with one minute left.

Phillips’ low shot from 12 yards out beat a sprawling Bettinelli, but to Boro's relief, the ball rebounded to safety off the inside of the left-hand post.