AITOR KARANKA will make the pursuit of Danny Graham one of his main priorities as he looks to strengthen his Middlesbrough squad this summer.
Graham played the final game of his loan spell from Sunderland at Yeovil on Saturday, with his 18 games for the Teessiders bringing six goals.
Assuming the Black Cats claim one point from their final two Premier League matches to guarantee their place in the top-flight, it is unlikely that the 28-year-old will be required on Wearside next term.
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Whether Boro would be able to afford to buy him is another issue, with the striker having cost £5m when he moved from Swansea and currently commanding wages that are way beyond what the Teessiders would want to pay as they battle to adhere to the Football League’s Financial Fair Play restrictions.
However, a season-long loan would be a definite possibility, and Karanka has provided his strongest indication yet that he regards Graham as a leading contender to be the club’s main centre-forward next season.
“Could I see Danny being back here next season? Possibly, yes,” said the Boro head coach, who will spend the next fortnight at Rockliffe Park before heading back to Spain for a summer break. “He came here to help us, and he has helped us a lot with his experience, goals and character.
“He came here without playing a lot of games, but I think he played all of the games for us. His performance was very good, his contribution was very good, and he could be an important player for the future.
“I have been speaking with all the players we’ve had on loan, but now is the time we need to study and see which players we need.”
A new centre-forward and a natural right-back are Karanka’s two main summer priorities, with his decision over the former likely to be heavily influenced by what happens to Lukas Jutkiewicz.
Jutkiewicz scored seven goals during a successful loan spell at Bolton Wanderers, and Trotters boss Dougie Freedman has already signalled his desire to sign the 25-year-old permanently this summer.
RIVERSIDE RETURN? Danny Graham scored six goals in 18 games for Boro while on loan from Sunderland
If Boro could recoup the £1.3m they shelled out to sign Jutkiewicz from Coventry, they would strengthen their hand when it came to bidding for targets of their own. On the other hand, a reborn Jutkiewicz would potentially be as good as anything they could recruit from elsewhere.
Ultimately, it will come down to Karanka’s opinion of the striker, and while he has refused to draw a line under Jutkiewicz’s Boro career, his assessment of the situation hardly suggests he is desperate to keep a player who failed to sparkle when he played under him in the past.
“He (Jutkiewicz) is a player who needed to go out on loan because his confidence here was no good, and for this reason he played at Bolton,” he said. “He scored goals, played well and was happy because he was playing.
“He recovered his confidence, so we have to study his position, just like we have to for a lot of other players.
“But if we keep Danny and then we keep Juke, and then we keep all the players, we will have 35 players in the squad. I don't want to have a lot of players. I would like to work with 22 or 23 players because that is the way I like to work.
“Will Lukas be here at the start of pre-season? I don’t know at the moment. I have to speak with the people here at the club and then after that with the players.”