PATRICK BAMFORD claims he is a better player now than when he left Middlesbrough two years ago, and is confident a full pre-season will enable him to re-establish himself in the Championship.

Bamford scored his first goal for more than two years when he glanced home Viktor Fischer’s corner in Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Southampton, but the emotional celebrations merely underlined how traumatic the last few years have been.

After leaving Boro in the wake of 2015’s play-off final defeat to Norwich, the 23-year-old endured unsuccessful loan spells at Crystal Palace, Norwich and Burnley that saw him make a total of two league starts in the space of more than 18 months.

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He has suffered more frustration since making a £6m move to Middlesbrough in January, with Saturday’s appearance marking his first league start since returning to Teesside.

Understandably, it has taken him time to recover his sharpness, but having scored 17 Championship goals in his previous spell at the Riverside, he retains an unshakeable faith in his ability.

He could be a pivotal figure as Boro look to bounce back at the first time of asking next season, and expects pre-season to be a crucial period as he looks to restore himself to peak condition.

“I’ve always believed in myself,” said Bamford. “I always knew that if I started games, I would score. It (his appearance against Southampton) was only my third Premier League start in two years, so it has been frustrating.

“But even though I haven’t played, I would still say I’ve improved as a player since I was last here. I believe I’m in a good position for next year, and the team are too.

“Pre-season will be important for me because the last time I had a proper pre-season was before I came here the last time. That was when I went away with Chelsea (to the United States) and played a couple of games. It will be nice to get a full pre-season under my belt, and hopefully kick on.”

With Alvaro Negredo certain to leave once his loan move from Valencia expires, Bamford and Rudy Gestede are likely to be prominent figures in Boro’s attacking line-up next season.

With that in mind, Bamford agrees it was important to break his duck on Saturday, even if the goal was insufficient to prevent Boro crashing to their ninth home defeat of the campaign.

The striker stole in front of Shane Long to head home Fischer’s corner, and having fluffed two earlier opportunities to test Fraser Forster in the Southampton goal, there was a mixture of relief and pride as he finally found the back of the net.

“It takes a lot of weight off my shoulders,” said Bamford. “It’s been a long time coming. I’ve barely started in the Premier League over the last two years, which has been frustrating. But I’ve stuck at it and kept working hard.

“I’ve always been there for the team. I’m here to help the team, and I’ve been patient. I’ve worked hard, and I’ve supported all the lads.”

Whereas Boro’s fans have turned on some of the club’s players in the last few weeks, they have remained supportive of Bamford, often urging Aitor Karanka and Steve Agnew to give him more of a chance.

That support has been appreciated, and Bamford is determined to do all he can to repay it next season.

“It was nice to get that reception,” he said. “Especially because of all the things the fans have had to go through. That hasn’t been ideal, and you can understand why they are frustrated now. But they will still be with us next season and we need to try to repay them.”

Meanwhile, former Manchester United assistant Rene Meulensteen has claimed Ryan Giggs would be a “good fit” for the head coach role at the Riverside.

Giggs is the bookmakers’ favourite to succeed Steve Agnew, with Steve Gibson expected to announce a change of direction after Sunday’s game with Liverpool, and Meulensteen is adamant the former midfielder would be a wise choice despite his lack of managerial experience.

“I’m sure he would be very keen because he’s ready and he wants to be a manger,” said Meulensteen, who was Sir Alex Ferguson’s number two at Old Trafford. “People always talk about experience, experience, experience, but look around, there are many managers who have plenty of experience and don’t pull it off.

“That’s why I’m so chuffed for Paul (Clement) at Swansea. Next year he can build his own tea, and go from there.

“With Ryan, with his vast experience and all that, I think he could do a fantastic job (at Middlesbrough). It sounds like a good fit.”