DANNY GRAHAM will leave Middlesbrough a much effective player than when he arrived at the start of January according to Aitor Karanka, but the Boro boss admits it is too early to know whether there is any chance of signing the Sunderland striker permanently this summer.
Graham’s first-half strike against Birmingham on Tuesday made it four goals in the last eight games for the loanee, who had only scored one senior goal in the previous 14 months.
Having failed to make an impact at both Sunderland and Hull City, Graham was suffering something of a crisis in confidence when he moved to the Riverside. Two-and-a-half months on, however, and he is starting to rediscover the form that saw him score 26 Championship goals for Watford in the 2010-11 campaign.
While Karanka claims it is too early to be making transfer plans, Boro officials will discuss the possibility of a permanent move for the 28-year-old with their counterparts at the Stadium of Light this summer.
If, as looks increasingly likely, Sunderland are relegated, Gustavo Poyet could retain Graham for his own starting line-up in the Championship. If the Black Cats stay up, the striker’s wage demands could make it hard for Boro to agree a permanent deal.
Either way, there will have to be some hard bargaining on all sides to push through a transfer, but whatever happens in the close season, Karanka is delighted to see Graham back firing on all cylinders after a difficult spell.
“I am very pleased with Danny,” said the Boro boss. “He arrived here and didn’t score goals at the beginning, but he always kept working very well. With the way he was working for the team, I was always very confident the goals would come.
“I never doubted that because he is a very good player and his attitude is excellent. I am pleased for him and he deserves to have success. As a coach in your first job, you want to have players like Danny who conduct themselves like you would want every day.
“It’s difficult to say how good he could be over the course of a whole Championship season because it’s difficult to say how many goals anyone could score. All I would say with Danny is that we have had him for this season and he has done everything we could have asked of him.
“He came here to help us and that is what he has done. He will finish the season in a much more confident mood than when he arrived. I don’t want to say he’s a better player because he has always been very good, but he is certainly finishing the season in a much better place.”
While Graham will head to Burnley tomorrow looking to extend his recent good scoring run, Karanka is more concerned about how his side will line up at the other end of the pitch.
Ben Gibson and Kenneth Omeruo are suspended following their dismissals on Tuesday, while Rhys Williams, Seb Hines and George Friend are all unavailable because of injury.
Daniel Ayala will return from an injury problem of his own to partner Jonathan Woodgate at centre-half, but Karanka might have to hand untried 20-year-old David Atkinson a first-team debut at full-back just to be able to name a back four.
Atkinson, who is from Shildon, has been an unused substitute in Boro’s last eight games, but Karanka is poised to name him at right-back, with Jozsef Varga switching to the opposite flank.
“It’s a totally new situation for me,” said the Spaniard. “I have never experienced anything like it before, but I have the squad I have and I have to think about how I can use it.
“I have to put together a team to start the game, but then I also have to think about the other 90 minutes and have plans in case anything else happens. I have the starting team worked out in my head.
“To be honest, it wasn’t too difficult because I don’t have many players to choose from. In one way it is difficult because it is a completely new defence, but in another way it is easy because I don’t have lots of players I could select.”