A FRUSTRATED George Friend has issued a heartfelt apology to fans after Middlesbrough’s hopes of sealing a Premier League return at the first attempt ended in deep frustration and disappointment.

Without a trip to Wembley, Boro will be stay in the Championship after failing to find the net and test Aston Villa anywhere near as much as they needed to over two legs in the play-off semi-final.

Now Tony Pulis, looking at ways of improving the squad for next season despite vowing not to spend huge chunks of chairman Steve Gibson’s money, will start to work on plans on how to make his team more serious contenders for an automatic spot.

Friend has been part of the three promotion pushes during his time with Middlesbrough, and two have ended flat. The first was the defeat to Norwich City at Wembley in 2015 and now losing to Villa over the two games has hurt just as much.

Despite the slight improvements in results since Boxing Day when Pulis took over and set his sights on achieving a top six place, ultimately Middlesbrough's inconsistencies leading to the 60-year-old replacing Garry Monk have proven costly.

Friend said: “You forget about the early stages of the season, rightly so, if you can have a strong finish and we did that to get in the play-offs.

“I am just sorry for the fans that we haven’t been able to give them that day out at Trafalgar Square, those are the things you remember as a fan and we haven’t been able to deliver those memories that would go down in the club’s history. There will be many good times under this manager though I am sure.

“It was a peculiar season, but if you divide it into stages, look at the business end, that is where things happen, and you can come from the cold and into the play-offs. We did that.

“That’s why the lads who have played the majority of their career in the Championship, you know nothing is impossible in this league and we were really positive we could get a result against Villa.”

Pulis was quick to point out the teams that finished third and fourth – Fulham and Aston Villa – will go to Wembley, highlighting the sizeable gap in points between the sides over the regular 46-game season.

While there is a real sense that Villa controlled the two play-off legs, only Mile Jedinak’s goal separated the two teams.

Pulis will already be looking at ways of making the team stronger for next season, when he will be looking to really make his mark in the division after his first pre-season and summer transfer window at the Riverside.

Even though he insists he will not be looking for Gibson to invest too heavily in the squad after the £40m-plus spending during the last close season, that could all change if Middlesbrough decided to listen to offers for Ben Gibson and Adama Traore.

Friend said: “The manager didn’t get his own window, like the summer one, properly I don’t think so it will be interesting to see what happens.

“You do know though he gets the best out of players, so whether or not he brings people in it will be a strong squad, and I think he likes experience too so hopefully we keep experience as well as our young talent too.”

Pulis will be chatting with Gibson at the earliest opportunity to discuss a way ahead, while Boro are not due to lose senior players as those set to be out of contract – Fabio da Silva, Grant Leadbitter and Dimi Konstantopoulos – have signed new terms over the last few months.

Having failed to really challenge the Championship’s top two, though, it would be no surprise to see Pulis freshen things up.

Friend, 30, said: “I don’t think there was much between us and Villa. We are both strong and there were lots of chances. You would think on our day we could match everyone, I think only Wolves have proven too good for us this season. We haven’t been good enough throughout the whole season but we will look to put that right.

“I remember saying after Wembley a few years ago that ‘we will come back fighting and stronger’, when I said ‘we weren’t ready this time’.

“This time I felt we could do it under this manager. We went with a positive mindset to Villa and didn’t achieve what we wanted but I believe we can come back from this. Hopefully we can carry how we have finished this season over in to next season.

“I have not had a season quite like it, the rest of the players would echo that. A change in manager, using so many different players throughout the season, not really going on a proper run until the latter stages. It was peculiar. You could say we went on the run at the right time, we were resilient but I don’t think we will have another like it.”

Friend is still under contract and has become a key figure again under Pulis, having dropped in and out of the side under Monk. The former Stoke and West Brom boss, who will come up against his two old clubs in the second tier next season, has history of having a mixture of youth and experience, so it would be no surprise if he tinkered rather than made massive changes.

Friend said: “If it is anything like when he came in, you can expect a small squad and togetherness like I don’t think we will have seen before.

“You will see a team revved up next season, strong at the back and hard to beat but good going forward. It’s a team that has a lot of opportunity, whether we go in as favourites who knows, but we will be a strong side.

“We can’t be upset, but of course there is disappointment. We thought we could do it but we will come back stronger and that spirit of Teesside will be there."