Middlesbrough moved six points clear of the relegation zone in the Sky Bet Championship as second-half goals from Ashley Fletcher and Lewis Wing secured a 2-1 win over Stoke.
Stoke remain rooted in the bottom three despite having claimed the lead when Sam Clucas slotted home from inside the box.
Fletcher equalised four minutes after the Potters’ opener and Wing fired home an excellent long-range winner with 19 minutes left to extend Boro’s winning run at the Riverside to three games.
With Britt Assombalonga still unavailable because of a hamstring injury, Middlesbrough head coach Jonathan Woodgate handed 19-year-old striker Stephen Walker a first league start.
Walker, who was born and raised on Teesside as a Middlesbrough fan, is an England Under-19 international but he had precious little chance to impress on a difficult night for the strikers on both sides.
Middlesbrough and Stoke were among the five lowest scorers in the Championship before kick-off and it was initially not hard to see why given the lack of creativity on display.
Tom Ince made an occasional burst forward for the visitors while Fletcher worked industriously in an attacking role for the hosts, but defences dominated throughout as both sets of supporters grew increasingly frustrated.
It was 22 minutes before either team fashioned an attempt at goal and even that was a pretty nondescript effort, with Ince dragging a low shot well wide after drifting across the face of the 18-yard box.
The best chance of the opening period came at the other end, with Fletcher outmuscling former Middlesbrough loanee Danny Batth as he barged on to Jonny Howson’s through-ball. His driven low strike was heading towards the corner before former England goalkeeper Jack Butland produced an excellent fingertip save to turn the ball around the post.
Stoke came close at the end of the first half, with Ince firing a long-range effort at Aynsley Pears, and the visitors broke the deadlock eight minutes after the break.
Lee Gregory broke down the right after Dael Fry allowed a long ball to sail over his head, and the forward delivered a low ball into the area. Pears produced a superb point-blank save to keep out James McClean’s initial strike, but the Middlesbrough goalkeeper was powerless to prevent Clucas slotting home the rebound.
Stoke’s goal was their reward for a bright start to the second period, but their lead lasted just four minutes before Boro equalised.
Jonny Howson floated a deft ball over the top of the Potters defence and after ghosting in behind a dawdling Batth, Fletcher angled in a neat diving header. Butland got a decent hand to the ball but was unable to keep it out.
The arrival of Wing and Rudy Gestede from the substitutes’ bench helped increase Middlesbrough’s attacking threat, and the hosts scored their winner with 19 minutes left.
Marcus Tavernier released Wing into Stoke’s final third and with his opponents backing off him, the midfielder drilled a clinical low shot into the bottom left-hand corner.
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