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Curtis' career transformation
TWELVE months ago yesterday, Curtis Main made his final appearance as a Darlington player. It was a 1-1 draw with Kidderminster Harriers, and Main was withdrawn after less than an hour. Within a matter of weeks, he was gone, cast adrift onto the footballing scrapheap and deemed of insufficient quality to play in the Blue Square Bet Premier.
What a difference a year makes. While Darlington were slumping to a 5-2 defeat at Mansfield on Tuesday night that continued their seemingly inexorable slide out of the Conference, Main was celebrating his first senior goal as a Middlesbrough player, some three levels above the standard of his former employers.
With a bullishness that belied his teenage years, the South Shields-born striker received the ball from Julio Arca in the closing stages of Boro's 3-1 win at Millwall and hammered a searing drive into the roof of the net at The New Den.
It was a strike that had been coming, such was the quality of Main's three previous appearances this season, one of which saw him start against Premier League Sunderland in the FA Cup.
Speak to members of Middlesbrough's coaching staff, and they will talk glowingly of Main's instinctive, raw talent. Yes, he still needs a considerable amount of work, but the raw materials occasionally make hairs stand on end.
Darlington have made some catastrophic errors in the last few years, but few could prove as costly, both in a footballing and financial sense, as allowing Main to slip through their fingers for nothing. As this week's performance proved, the Quakers' loss has undoubtedly been Middlesbrough's gain.
"I wouldn't have been human if there hadn't been times when I wondered where my career was heading," said Main, who also had an unsuccessful trial at Hartlepool last spring before eventually joining the Teessiders. "I can just about remember my last game for Darlington, who are obviously in the Conference, so when that ends you wonder what's coming next.
"If someone had said then that a year down the line I would be scoring in the Championship for Middlesbrough, I would obviously have taken it all day long.
"When I left Darlington, I wasn't really sure what the future would hold. But I always believed in myself. I've played football for a long time now and I know what I'm capable of.
"It was just a case of getting an opportunity and a chance to show what I can do. Thankfully, Tony Mowbray gave me that."
During his Darlington days, Main's ability was never in question. He became the youngest player ever to represent the Quakers when he made his debut at the age of 15, and headed to London for a trial with Fulham when he was still a couple of weeks short of his 16th birthday.
It was his attitude that troubled the club's former manager, Mark Cooper, with his hot-headedness eventually resulting in an irreconcilable breakdown in the pair's relationship that ultimately hastened his departure through the exit door.
But which teenager has not occasionally been hot-headed, especially when they are being thrust into the kind of unstable situation that has existed at Darlington for a while now?
Mowbray has dealt with plenty of talented youngsters in his time, and it did not take long for Middlesbrough's respected scouting network to make him aware of Main's qualities. Once he saw them for himself, it took him even less time to decide that he wanted the youngster at his football club.
"It all very happened very quickly to be honest," said Main. "I got the call inviting me to go in, and I wasn't in long, probably a couple of days, before I was playing in a couple of matches.
"I played in a couple of training games and the manager was there watching them. He must have seen something in me, and he decided that he would give me a chance and offer me something. I'm obviously massively grateful that he did.
"This is a great place to be as a young player. There's a brilliant set up here at Middlesbrough and the club has a fantastic track record of bringing young lads through. The coaches have been brilliant with me ever since I arrived and I seem to be thriving off what they're doing with me."
Having established himself in Boro's development side, Main quickly set about scoring goals. To date, he boasts 19 reserve-team strikes this season, but it looks increasingly likely that he will not be scoring any more.
The senior squad is now his home, and while Mowbray is understandably keen to dampen down expectations, it is telling that the Boro boss has resisted the urge to bring in a striker on loan in recent weeks, such has been the impact of Main's emergence.
His senior debut against Crystal Palace was a notable high, but nothing will beat the feeling that accompanied Tuesday night's strike.
"That was probably the first real chance I've had," he said. "I'd been waiting for a chance to get the ball out of my feet and hit it. That's exactly what I did and I was really delighted to see it fly into the back of the net.
"Hopefully, I can build on it now. I don't know about expecting it every week, but every other wouldn't be bad!"