SOMETIMES, being a teenage prodigy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. When your career suffers an inevitable dip, you can find yourself written off before most players have even progressed from the youth ranks. And by the time you reach 24, you can already be regarded as a seasoned campaigner, even though you might still be one of the youngest players in the dressing room.

Patrick Bamford does not celebrate his 25th birthday until September, yet in the eyes of some football fans, he has already achieved everything he is likely to experience. Training with the likes of John Terry and Frank Lampard in Chelsea’s youth ranks, making the Championship Team of the Season in his first full campaign in the second tier, earning Premier League moves to Crystal Palace, Norwich City and Burnley. Done and dusted in his early 20s, and then rapidly downhill from there.

It didn’t help, of course, that those top-flight moves led to frustration, or that his return to Middlesbrough last January failed to immediately reignite his fortunes. Between leaving Teesside at the end of his first loan move in the summer of 2015 and kicking off the current campaign, Bamford scored a grand total of one senior goal in the space of two years. Even that was something of an irrelevance, coming against Southampton when Boro had already been relegated.

When his scoring record failed to improve in the first half of this season, plenty of people concluded that Bamford’s time had been and gone. Yet you only had to scratch slightly below the surface to see that that assessment was badly flawed.

Bamford barely played during his Premier League loan spells, and was hardly flavour of the month under Garry Monk in the autumn either. When he did make it on to the field, it was hardly ever as a striker, and even in the early months of Tony Pulis’ Riverside reign, he found himself stationed on the left flank.

Suddenly, that has changed. Not only is Bamford now a permanent fixture in Boro’s first team, he has also been handed the central-striker role ahead of Britt Assombalonga. His response? Six goals in the space of three games to help propel the Teessiders back into the heart of the play-off mix. So much for his career having hit an unsalvageable trough.

“I know in the last few seasons, a lot of people have probably written me off a bit,” said Bamford, in the wake of claiming the first hat-trick of his senior career in Friday’s 3-0 win over Leeds United. “But I always knew that if I played regular games, then I would score goals, especially if I got the chance to play up front.

“I knew that when I got a run, I’d be okay, and when I score one, it generally sets me off on a run where I score a few. Hopefully, I can keep that going.

“I’m enjoying my football now. I’m happy to be playing up front. I’m sure everybody knows that’s what I ideally want to do. We’ve been through that a lot of times, and I’m enjoying it now.

“I’m a striker, so that’s where I want to play. I was playing on the left-hand side, but I didn’t really mind that because at least I was playing regular football. When the season first started, I was in and out of the team quite a bit. So, to be honest, I was just happy to play. But I knew when I got my chance to go up front at Sunderland, I had to take it. Fortunately, I did.”

In the past, Bamford admits he would have sulked when first Monk and then Pulis refused to see him as a lead striker. With maturity, though, has come a greater sense of understanding, and while some expected Pulis’ arrival to herald the end of Bamford’s opportunities in a Middlesbrough shirt, instead the striker has won the Boro boss over in the space of a couple of months.

On Friday, Pulis described his new lead striker as a “tremendous talent”, and while he might not possess the physical attributes often associated with the central forward in one of Pulis’ teams, Bamford’s goalscoring qualities make him a hugely valuable asset in the second tier.

“To be honest, the last few years have probably helped me in terms of how I handle being in and out of the side,” he said. “As much as it’s been frustrating not to be in the team, I think I’ve probably matured because of it.

“Earlier in my career, when I was at Palace and Norwich, I know I took things quite badly. I didn’t really handle that stage of my career very well, and the same was true at Burnley. But I think as I’ve learned and grown up, I knew what to do this time when I was left out of the team. I knew I had to work and keep my head on things, and that’s paying off so far.”

Boro are reaping the reward of his patience, with Friday’s victory having briefly seen them return to the top six for the first time since mid-November.

They dropped back out of the play-off places when Bristol City thrashed Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, but tomorrow’s trip to relegation-threatened Birmingham City represents another opportunity to strengthen their claim on a top-six spot, with another side from the lower reaches of the table, Barnsley, due to visit the Riverside on Saturday.

“It’s about finding that consistency,” said Bamford. “That’s the one thing that’s let us down because we’ve struggled for that this season. Too many times this season, we’ve had a couple of good results, but then we’ve taken a step back. Hopefully, we can find that consistency at the right time.

“As long as we stay in touch with that group of clubs that are battling for the play-offs, that’s the minimum requirement.  Ideally, we want to build on each game as it comes, and the win over Leeds is a good platform to start from.

“It’s a cliché, but we can’t look too far ahead of ourselves into the future. If we avoid doing that, we’ll see where we come at the end of the season.

“The fans have a lot to be excited about. The players are excited because this is the crunch time of the season. It’s going to be good.”