STEVE McCLAREN has assured Gareth Southgate of Middlesbrough's ambitions and told his skipper that he is pivotal to the club's long-term plans.

England centre-back Southgate has been persistently linked with a move, most recently to Newcastle United or Liverpool.

Although Sir Bobby Robson is a big admirer of 32-year-old Southgate, Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd insists talk of a summer deal is "nonsense''.

And Boro manager McClaren yesterday revealed he has spoken to the ambitious Southgate, who has two years to run on his contract, to underline how highly he is prized at the Riverside.

McClaren said: "I want to keep Gareth here. He's had two very good seasons and there's going to be speculation that top clubs want him.

"But there's no way that we ever want to contemplate that. I want to reassure the Middlesbrough public that we are a club going forward and we don't want to sell our best players.

"We want to keep them to keep going forward and Gareth is integral to that.

"I've spoken to him this week about things in general and what our plans are, as you would with any captain.

"We talked about how we are going to improve next season and how he will be part of that.''

McClaren wants to recruit more experienced players like Southgate, who was his first signing when he arrived from Aston Villa nearly two years ago in a £6.5m deal, but the Boro boss stressed there won't be a major influx of new talent.

Boro finished 11th in the season just ended, one place higher than in McClaren's first term in charge.

But a meagre total of 12 away League goals - only bottom club Sunderland scored fewer - undermined their hopes of a push for Europe.

McClaren said: "We have a youthful squad, we've got the average down to about 24, but there aren't going to be that many additions - maybe two or three.

"We've already got a solid foundation here, but we need more experience to get a better balance in the squad.

"Next season is a big season for us - we need to deliver. We knew our third season here was always going to be a big season.

"Everyone knows where our failings were last season. It hits you between the eyes that we need to score more goals away from home. It's a concern.''

McClaren's priority signing, therefore, is a goalscorer and Sunderland's record-breaking striker Kevin Phillips is under serious consideration.

But even though £60,000-a-week Alen Boksic has gone, Boro may have to sell to make room for another attacker, and the prime candidate to leave Teesside is Carlos Marinelli.

The Argentinian's proposed move to Torino following a three-month loan collapsed over personal terms, but Boro are hoping to resurrect a deal with another Italian side.

McClaren is also playing a game of patience in his attempts to land midfield duo Geremi and Doriva, who were both on loan last season.

Real Madrid have quoted Boro in excess of £9m for Cameroon star Geremi to exercise their option to buy him, after rejecting an opening offer of £3m.

The 24-year-old, a huge success during his season-long loan, is keen to join Boro on a permanent basis and they expect Real to lower their asking price.

But McClaren is prepared to look elsewhere if the former European champions refuse to give ground.

Real still seemed entrenched last night, with sporting director Jorge Valdano maintaining that Geremi will remain at the Bernabeu "unless a super offer arrives''.

He added: "In the Premier League, Geremi has proved himself at a great level and he can be very useful to Madrid.

''The same contribution that Guti gives a team from midfield to the attack, Geremi can give from the midfield to the back.''

Brazilian Doriva, 30, is still under contract with Spanish side Celta Vigo, and McClaren insisted: "We've not had discussions with them yet about what the fee might be.''