TONY PULIS accepts Middlesbrough can’t afford to lose further ground on the Championship’s play-off places and has challenged his players to prove they have the right mentality to achieve their goals.

Boro’s defeat at Norwich City on Saturday has left them six points behind Fulham and Bristol City in fifth and sixth place in the promotion picture; there are then a further three and five points to make up on Cardiff and Aston Villa above them.

The situation, with 16 matches remaining, will soon be at the stage where Middlesbrough can’t afford to lose games because their rivals will be expected to go on runs themselves to secure a top six spot.

Pulis wants his attacking players need to find form, having seen his side fail to score in four of the six Championship games he has been in charge of since taking over from Garry Monk.

As well as the lack of goals, the biggest frustration he has encountered is the team’s inability to win at the Riverside Stadium; they have failed to score in the three home league games and lost two.

A similarly disappointing scoreline against Reading this Saturday would really start to get to the players and fans – and Pulis is acutely aware of the situation at a time when Boro need a string of victories to climb into the promotion mix.

Pulis said: “Putting a run of games together is the important thing, our home form has to improve and we need to win games, that’s vital.

“We know we also need results away from home and that will be tough, but getting things right at home is the important thing at the moment.

“There is no reason why we shouldn’t be in there. There’s a lot of confidence still in the group and now with all the nonsense finished it’s about getting this club in the play-offs.”

To get them ticking he needs his forwards to find a way of scoring. Rudy Gestede’s straight red card at Norwich means a three-match ban and Middlesbrough are considering an appeal, with the manager thinking he didn’t deserve it for the tackle on Grant Hanley.

And with Ashley Fletcher and Martin Braithwaite out on loan, plus the failure to bring in the extra option on deadline day, a lot rests on the shoulders of top scorer Britt Assombalonga and Patrick Bamford.

Pulis will spend this week on the training ground looking for that little bit of extra confidence, and he will be hoping new recruit Jack Harrison can help lay on the goals along with Stewart Downing and Adama Traore.

There will also be a different face on the training ground after Pulis’ decision to bring Curtis Fleming back to Teesside.

Fleming has admitted the lure of coming back as the club's first team coach was too strong – despite spending the last couple of years at Queens Park Rangers with Pulis’ long-term friend Ian Holloway.

Fleming, 49, was assistant manager to Craig Hignett at Hartlepool before his spell at QPR and now he is looking forward to being back where his family has still been living.

“I have a young family in the North-East so it was very difficult for me to turn this opportunity down,” Fleming said. “My family home is 20 minutes from the Boro training ground. I sat down and spoke to Ollie (Holloway) about it and he was brilliant. He understands my reasons and he was fantastic about it.”

He added: "I have loved my time at QPR. The gaffer, the staff and fans all have so much passion for the club and it reminds me of Middlesbrough in many ways because the place has such a family feel to it.

"I want to thank the gaffer for giving me the opportunity to work here. QPR has a great name in football so for me to have the chance to work here has meant a lot."

Fleming made more than 300 appearances for the Boro during a decade long year playing period. He has had coaching stints at Crystal Palace, Bolton, Livingston and Pools.

Fleming is part of the new-look coaching team which includes Dave Kemp, Jonathan Woodgate and goalkeeping coach Jonathan Gould underneath Pulis.

Defender Daniel Ayala has been shortlisted in the PFA Championship Player of the Month Awards.

The 27-year-old defender scored three in four matches in January as well as helping to keep things tight at the back and keeping two clean sheets.

Ayala is up against Ryan Sessegnon (Fulham), Scott Hogan (Aston Villa), James Maddison (Norwich), Robert Snodgrass (Aston Villa) and Steve Morison (Millwall) for the award.