Villa, whose only victims in their previous 11 games had been Internazionale and Wigan, endured a testing opening but found renewed resolve once their captain had scored late in the first half.
The match was more than a reunion of former allies. For Villa, this represented the start of a six-day period as critical as any during Atkinson's three and a half year reign. On Saturday they visit one of their fellow stragglers in the Premiership, Queen's Park Rangers, while on Tuesday the Turks of Trabzonspor bring a 1-0 lead to Birmingham in the Uefa Cup.
As for Boro, the chance to pit themselves against opposition from the top flight offered a chance to gauge their progress under Robson. It was quickly evident that they relished the challenge, and the newly-shorn Mark Bosnich had to use his legs to keep out a John Hendrie shot after the Scot had wriggled through.
Although Villa replied with a Dean Saunders drive that flew wide, they spent much of the first half coming to terms with Hendrie's roving role between midfield and Paul Wilkinson. Another typically elusive surge ended with a short pass to Jamie Pollock, whose low effort beat Bosnich but also his left-hand post.
With bookings for Townsend and Ugo Ehiogu giving Boro a moral as well as territorial ascendancy, Villa could have been excused for fearing this was not to be their night. On the half- hour, however, Guy Whittingham's head beat Alan Miller's fist to a hanging cross by Ray Houghton, allowing Townsend to rifle the loose ball in off Derek Whyte for his first goal since February.
A diving header by Dwight Yorke was close to doubling the lead, but Boro were undaunted. Hendrie forced a sprawling save from Bosnich as half-time beckoned, and Alan Moore did the same immediately after the interval.
Five minutes later, Saunders sprinted clear of a clumsily set offside trap only to fire feebly wide as he cut in towards the six-yard area. The visitors were by now finding it harder to maintain their early tempo, and Saunders promptly underlined their unease with another shot which Miller clutched at the second attempt. The Boro goalkeeper's fingertip save from Yorke, and a foul on the same player which earned Neil Cox a yellow card on his return to Villa Park were signs of Villa's second-half superiority.
Yorke, with long-range strikes, seemed more intent than most on seeing it reflected in the scoreline, although a second would have been harsh on Robson's men.
The Middlesbrough manager did not dispute the justice of the outcome, but maintained that Miller had been fouled moments before Townsend struck.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Bosnich; Barrett, McGrath, Ehiogu, Staunton; Houghton, Parker, Townsend, Yorke; Whittingham (Lamptey, 81), Saunders. Substitutes not used: Richardson, Spink (gk).
Middlesbrough (4-5-1): Miller; Cox, Vickers, Whyte, Fleming; Hendrie, Blackmore, Pollock, Todd (Hignett, 79), Moore; Wilkinson. Substitutes not used: Roberts, Wright (gk).
Referee: K Morton (Bury St Edmunds).Reuse content