Tony Pulis’ first game as Middlesbrough manager ended in a 1-0 defeat as Aston Villa finally recorded a win in December.
Robert Snodgrass headed in the crucial winning goal with quarter of an hour remaining at the Riverside Stadium to ensure Villa moved level on points with sixth-placed Sheffield United.
It was a tight affair on Teesside but Middlesbrough, after winning back-to-back games beforehand, narrowly lost out as Pulis’ reign started with a loss.
The former West Brom boss only took over on Boxing Day, when he was in the stands to watch the victory over Bolton, and he was a frustrated figure in his technical area throughout the 90 minutes.
Pulis only emerged from the tunnel as the game kicked off, so there was no time for any special introduction to the supporters. He made a statement or two in terms of his first selection but they failed to have the desired effect.
Regular full-back Cyrus Christie was only named on the bench and an opportunity was handed to Ryan Shotton down the right. The former Stoke man, who worked under Pulis there, was asked to use his long throw to regularly deliver balls into the box.
The aim was to see target-man Rudy Gestede, back in the side for the first time since August, make a nuisance of himself in the area. He had a couple of first-half efforts but nothing to really trouble goalkeeper Sam Johnstone.
Aston Villa, without a win in their five previous December fixtures, caused occasional problems, although Snodgrass’ free-kick at Darren Randolph was the only effort recorded on target in the opening 20 minutes by either side.
Middlesbrough striker Britt Assombalonga headed wide a Grant Leadbitter corner, but the best chance of the half stemmed from the home team’s tendency to gift possession to the visitors.
Shotton and Daniel Ayala had already done that when Ben Gibson followed their lead and played a pass to former team-mate Albert Adomah. The winger’s low strike rolled straight into Randolph.
Middlesbrough’s best first half chance was when Jonny Howson struck a volley straight at Johnstone after running on to Gestede’s knock down; it was also their first effort on target and Pulis clearly wanted more.
But Villa looked more dangerous after the restart. James Chester headed onto the roof of the net when he met Conor Hourihane’s free-kick from the right, while Randolph did well to turn a low drive from Jack Grealish behind for a corner.
Pulis’ first substitution was to introduce Adama Traore. His power and pace lifted the Riverside and his team-mates, and a couple of direct runs created a couple of half chances.
But it was the man who replaced Traore at Villa, Adomah, who created the winning goal. The Ghana winger, who swapped clubs in August 2016, sent over a teasing deep cross for Snodgrass to dive and head inside the bottom corner.