ADAM CLAYTON has not even made the bench for the last three Championship matches, but Garry Monk insists he remains a key part of the fabric at Middlesbrough.

The energetic and whole-hearted midfielder has become an integral piece of the Boro side since moving from Huddersfield three years ago.

And while other players have tended to be swapped around in the battle to play alongside him, Clayton has tended to be the permanent fixture in the holding role, either alongside someone or on his own.

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But in manager Monk’s drive to deliver improved results, Clayton has found it has been his turn to miss out while Grant Leadbitter and Jonny Howson have been given their chance together.

After that initial defeat to Cardiff on October 21, the Leadbitter-Howson combo has helped Middlesbrough to three victories in a row against Reading, Hull and Sunderland – making it more difficult for Clayton to force his way back in.

Clayton, who did start in the EFL Cup at Bournemouth, has not even been a substitute for those wins, with Adam Forshaw preferred, but Monk is adamant nothing should be read into it and that he is still very much in the manager’s thinking this season.

“It’s ultra-competitive here, I have had hard decisions,” said Monk. “Clayton is an important part of what we are doing here, all of the players here are. They are fighting hard, it’s a difficult decision to leave players out.

“You have to pick the best team you feel can do a job in the games. The response you get from the players is important. He will be needed and is part of what we are doing. My job is difficult with players like that.”

Clayton is not the first player to have found himself on the sidelines this season, despite known to be a prominent character of the dressing room and on the field of play.

Stewart Downing and Leadbitter are firmly back in the first team picture after starting the campaign wondering if they will be starting matches, with the former even offered a free transfer to leave while he trained with the Under-23s.

Spanish defender Daniel Ayala found it hard to get back into the team after losing his place to Dael Fry after the opening weekend of the season, but is back in the side now and playing some of his best football for more than a year.

There has also been an intriguing battle between George Friend and Fabio da Silva for the left-back slot, a role which the Brazilian seemed to have nailed down until illness opened the door for Friend early in the visit to Hull.

Monk, who is also now fielding 18-year-old Marcus Tavernier, said: “It could be anyone who loses out, it really could. I don’t guarantee any player a start. They all have to work hard, and some are working hard and are still even the ones who are missing out.

“When you are naming a team there might be players who deserve to play because of their commitment, so it is fine margins. But that’s what I want.

“Whoever is not playing I expect a response and they have all understood that so far. They do know that they will be needed. Football changes quickly.”

Middlesbrough have no fresh injury problems after Sunday’s victory over Sunderland which propelled them back into the play-off places for the first time since early September.

Striker Rudy Gestede has returned to training with the first team again and hopes to be fit for the trip to Leeds United on November 19, providing further attacking competition.

Middlesbrough are looking to continue their recent resurgence and hope this international break does not affect their form, and have given the players some time off to recharge.

And Middlesbrough have chosen the gap in play to announce that two highly-rated academy talents have signed new professional terms.

Seventeen-year-olds Solomon Brynn and Stephen Walker have earned pro contracts.

Walker, who has attracted attention from Premier League clubs including Manchester United, has scored five goals in seven games for the Under-18s, while Brynn is a goalkeeper.

Academy boss Craig Liddle said: “We’re really pleased with the boys’ progress but they know the real work starts here. They’ve done well to get where they are, now they have to press on.”