STEWART DOWNING’S Middlesbrough future is hanging in the balance after it emerged he is not currently starting because the club do not want to trigger an automatic contract extension.

Downing’s current deal is due to expire at the end of the season, but the terms of the agreement he signed when he returned to the Riverside in the summer of 2015 mean he will automatically secure a contract to at least the end of next season if he makes one more start.

The 34-year-old was in the starting line-up for the 2-0 win over Ipswich Town on December 29, but has been a substitute for Middlesbrough’s last three league games against Derby County, Birmingham City and Millwall.

Downing is understood to have met with senior Middlesbrough officials last week to discuss the situation, but with the transfer window due to close in ten days’ time, it remains unresolved.

In an ideal world, the Teessiders would like to keep the midfielder at his hometown club. Tony Pulis has consistently spoken of Downing’s importance to his plans, and prior to the turn of the year, the former England international had started all bar three of Middlesbrough’s Championship matches.

There is still a chance Downing could be offered a new contract beyond the end of the current campaign, but with Steve Gibson and Neil Bausor looking to reduce the size of the wage bill, which is one of the highest in the Championship, he would have to take a significant pay cut to remain on Boro’s books.

Having signed at the start of the 2015-16 season, when Boro were splashing the cash under Aitor Karanka in what proved to be a successful attempt to win promotion to the Premier League, Downing is one of the club’s highest-earning players.

The Boro hierarchy do not feel they can justify paying the veteran’s current wages for the next two-and-a-half years, hence the current stand-off where Downing is effectively barred from the starting line-up, but available to feature as a substitute.

To Downing’s credit, he has refused to kick up a fuss, and he came off the bench in the 69th minute of Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Millwall, replacing fellow midfielder Mo Besic.

It is hard to see how the situation can continue for the remainder of the season though, and Boro will listen to any offers that come their way in the final week-and-a-half of the transfer window.

Downing does not have to move though, and it is hard to see another Championship club being willing to match his current earnings given that he is due to turn 35 in July.

When asked about Downing’s absence from the starting line-up in the wake of Saturday’s game, Pulis said: “I think Stewart is one of the best players I’ve worked with in respect of his ability and attitude. But he’s 34 years of age and there’s a lot of games he’s played so far. Personally, I’ve got a lot of respect for Stewart.”