GEORGE FRIEND has described how the utter devastation of Premier League relegation is driving Middlesbrough on to secure a swift return to the top level this season.

After closing the gap to the play-off places to four points on Saturday by defeating Reading, Boro’s players and fans are hoping the Tony Pulis era is ready to really get going.

Middlesbrough, who head for promotion rivals Cardiff on Saturday, have been a bit stop-start since the former West Brom boss took charge but they have shown signs of progress, with the main problem being scoring goals.

However, whatever issues Pulis has encountered so far, they are in stark contrast to the one year Middlesbrough spent in the top-flight when team spirit hit rock bottom.

There were splits in the camp and frustrations throughout the dressing room as Aitor Karanka’s time in charge came to an end last March, when Steve Agnew took over and was unable to stop the rot that had set in.

And for a player like Friend, who had experienced highs and lows before promotion after moving to the Riverside from Doncaster in the summer of 2012, the problems hit hard – and he is burning with desire to help get back in the Premier League.

“It was devastating when we were relegated,” said Friend. “Having been a big part of not only the journey up to the Premier League but the years before it as well, it was hard to take.

“I have seen the club move from tough times under Gordon Strachan to Tony Mowbray stabilising it and then Aitor lifting us towards that goal and finally reaching it.

“It was then devastating to see it all disappear again. Everyone felt that, across the area as well as the players. There had been so many years in exile, so to get back there it was then just a shame it only lasted for one year.

“It will be good for us to learn from that as players. I can’t talk about anyone else or everyone at the club. I can’t talk about anyone else because it’s above my jurisdiction, but you can definitely learn from that year and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Middlesbrough’s return to the Championship has not gone to plan either. When chairman Steve Gibson appointed Garry Monk last summer, and gave him the go-ahead to spend big, the expectations were to finish in the top two.

Instead Boro have spent the majority of their time outside the play-off places and a fear of being unable to force themselves back in led to Monk being replaced by Pulis on Boxing Day.

Even though Pulis has encountered the problem of his strikers failing in front of goal, Middlesbrough have looked more organised defensively and looked to have a more defined style of play.

But Friend thinks it would be wrong to suggest Pulis, who has shown a preference to play with target-man Rudy Gestede so far, is just the kind of manager who likes to get the ball in the air to the big striker.

The 30-year-old said: “People think we would just lump it under him, that’s not the way he wants us to play.

“At times in training he says to me ‘why are you hitting it forward?’ he says for us to play a bit, ‘give it to Stewy Downing’, give it to the good players’!

“I can fully understand that because those are the players who will go and win the game for us. At the same time he still gives you licence as a full-back like me to go forward, it’s a win-win that way.”

Friend took time out on his day off yesterday at Rockliffe Hall to take part in a Great British Bake-off style battle with team-mate Ryan Shotton.

The event was organised by Middlesbrough’s betting partner, Coral bookmaker, and were faced with the challenge of making and decorating a Victoria sponge cake.

Friend produced a cake with the letters UTB (Up The Boro) on it, while Shotton actually won with his lemon curd variation.

Look out for the full in-depth interviews with both Friend and Shotton in The Northern Echo.