TWO wins in a week at the Riverside may not make Middlesbrough title favourites, but it does offer grounds for optimism in a reshaped team.
That was the upbeat assessment of boss Tony Mowbray after his revamped side deservedly beat Crystal Palace.
A enterprising first hour and goals either side of the break by Seb Hines and Merouane Zemmama put Boro in complete control before they they suffered a late case of the jitters.
The victory followed a pulsating 3-2 midweek win over Burnley and helped blow away the clouds of despair after an opening defeat at Burnley.
It was an impressive showing from a side which has been radically overhauled in the summer by Mowbray.
He has made 10 new signings and also promoted a clutch of exciting youngsters, and there have been signs the Teessiders now have much more to offer going forward than the shot-shy side that limped to seventh spot last term.
Mowbray, tough, cautioned against getting carried away by two home wins on the bounce.
He said: “Yes, the table looks brighter now but let’s not pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.
“Blackpool bagged six and there are good teams in this league.
“It is still going to be a long season for us – and yet hopefully it will be an enjoyable one.
“Hopefully, the fans can see the young players in our side are giving everything for the team.
“I am proud of them because if you look at the team we had on the pitch at the end, with Luke Williams, Adam Reach, Curtis Main, Richard Smallwood, Seb Hines, Rhys Williams and Jason Steele, it’s a team of boys.
“So great credit to them. It bodes well for the future and we can only get stronger.”
Boro played with a real swagger in the first half, with sweeping crisp passing moves which carved Palace open repeatedly – and with better finishing they could have had a hat-full.
They hit the post, brought a string of good saves, sent a few shots inches wide and had two other efforts blocked in the box before ironically drawing first blood in scruffy style as Hines bundled home from a corner.
That failure to make their domination count gave still pointless Palace a route back in a scrappier second half.
Mowbray added: “Going in at half-time we were disappointed to only be one up after we peppered their goal in the first half.
“We thought we had sealed it with the second. but then we gifted them a goal with the penalty and that gave the the impetus to push on.
“It changed the pyschology of the game a bit.
“After that they went for it and at the Riverside we tend to sink back a bit which invited them to keep going.
“It was an uncomfortable last 15 minutes or so but ultimately it does not matter, we took the points.
“We held on at the end but we could have been out of sight.”
Boro should have gone ahead early on as Justin Hoyte crossed and Faris Haroun put a close- range header against the post.
Then on 10 minutes a neat ball from Zemmama found debutant Ishmael Miller – signed on loan from Nottingham Forest less than 24 hours before the game – but, as he shaped to shoot, Aaron Martin put in a blocking tackle.
Then teenager Adam Reach - who scored a cracker in the midweek 3-2 win over Burnley -latched on to a quick Hoyte throw and fired in a 25 yard snap shot the keeper did well to push behind.
On 40 minutes Reach again went close as a stinging 30-yard effort was pushed over by keeper Julian Speroni.
Boro went ahead from the resulting corner as Grant Leadbitter’s ball dropped into a crowd for Miller to glance it against a defender before Hines bundled home.
The Teessiders looked in complete control when they added a second on 52 minutes as Zemmama squeezed a low 20-yard free-kick around the edge of the wall and inside the near post.
Palace pulled one back on 55 minutes as Josh McEachran brought down Jermaine Easter to give away a penalty the former Hartlepool strike lashed home.
Palace almost levelled on 71 minutes as first Appiah then Moritz had good efforts saved by Jason Steele and in the final minute Wilfried Zaha broke clear but his 20-yard shot was saved.
Boro go to League Two Gillingham tomorrow in the Capital One Cup then face Millwall on Saturday with Mowbray expecting some of his walking wounded back for those games.
He said: “We will be stronger when our options are back.
“Mustapha Carayol isn’t far away, Joe Bennett is almost there, Kevin Thomson’s maybe a week away and I would like to think Marvin Emnes will be available.”
MIDDLESBROUGH: Steele, Friend, Hines, Rhys Williams, Hoyte, Reach, McEachran (Smallwood 78), Leadbitter, Zemmama, Haroun (Main 78), Miller (Luke Williams 67). Subs (not used): Leutwiler, McManus, Ledesma, Arca.
Goals: Hines 41, Zemmama 52.
CRYSTAL PALACE: Speroni, Ramage, Martin, Blake, Parr, Dikgacoi (Moritz 60), Garvan, Jedinak, Kossoko (Moxey 79), Zaha, Easter (Appiah 63). Subs (not used): Price, Ward, Wilbraham, O’Keefe.
Booked: Zaha, Martin.
Goal: Easter 56 pen.
Attendance: 15, 494
Referee: David Coote (Nottinghamshire).