GEORGE FRIEND is adamant Middlesbrough’s squad does not lack leaders in the wake of Grant Leadbitter’s deadline-day exit, and insists he would not swap the group of players at Tony Pulis’ disposal for any other team in the Championship.

Leadbitter was Boro’s club captain before heading up the A19 to re-join his boyhood team, Sunderland, and while he might not have been involved in much league action in the first half of the season, the 33-year-old remained an extremely influential character on the training ground and in the dressing room.

Danny Batth, another experienced campaigner, also left in the January transfer window, and even Pulis was forced to acknowledge he had lost two of his most vocal campaigners without being able to replace them on a like-for-like basis.

Since the pair left at the end of last month, Boro have suffered an FA Cup humiliation at Newport County and a league defeat at Sheffield United, but Friend does not believe a lack of leadership is an issue. The defender skippered the side at Bramall Lane, and while he was unable to inspire a second-half recovery after Richard Stearman headed home the only goal of the game, he has dismissed the idea that the loss of two big characters has been damaging.

“Grant was superb for the club, and it was great to have him in the dressing room,” said Friend. “Danny’s gone as well, and you can see the impact he’s had with Stoke because he’s gone straight in and got the armband.

“But I like to think I’ve always been up there as one of the leaders of the group, even if perhaps it’s not been broadcast when Grant was doing stuff, and there’s some other unsung heroes in the line-up here too that perhaps people don’t really know about.

“There’s lots of lads with experience. John Obi Mikel has come in, and he’s got that presence and an amazing CV. He’s brought that. Someone like Darren Randolph might not be the loudest, but he’s a calming influence. He’s such a calm character, and the countless saves and great decisions he’s made this season have won us a lot of points.

“Stewy (Downing) as well, having him and what’s he done in the game, and of course being local as well, that love for the club really comes through. You can look at big (Aden) Flinty and Dani Ayala at the back, and Jonny Howson has captained some big clubs in Norwich and Leeds. We’re not short of leaders, and we’re going to call upon everyone.”

One of the other criticisms levelled at Boro in recent weeks is that they only have one way of playing, and are incapable of changing things from the bench if things are not going well.

Sheffield United boss Chris Wilder switched tactics at the half-time interval of Wednesday’s game, bringing on a striker, Gary Madine, for a midfielder, Mark Duffy, and the decision to play two orthodox forwards alongside each other worked as the Blades dominated the second half.

Tony Pulis brought on Britt Assombalonga in an attempt to change things with 24 minutes left, but the introduction of Boro’s leading scorer did not really lead to a change in tactics and Pulis clearly remains reluctant to pair Assombalonga with Jordan Hugill in the starting line-up.

It remains to be seen whether that changes at Blackburn Rovers on Sunday, but despite his side having scored fewer goals than any other team in the top 15 positions in the table, Friend insists it would be wrong to claim that Boro lack attacking options.

“We can change things if we have to,” said the full-back. “If you’re bringing Britt Assombalonga on, it’s not too bad is it? You’re talking about the club-record signing, and someone who’s pretty much got one goal in every two games right through his career.

“I know the manager doesn’t like a big squad. That’s the way he likes to manage and I think it has its benefits. If you look at Sheffield United, they’ve signed an awful lot of strikers – even bringing in Scott Hogan – and they’re not even getting on the pitch. That creates its own issues.

“You can have it both ways. It’s the manager’s preference I guess, and because we’ve been tending to play with one up front, there’d be a lot of people sitting around if we had too many in that position.

“Personally, for me, when I see someone like Britt coming on, I think, ‘That’s brilliant, he can change the game here’. That’s what happened at West Brom. It’s different squads, but I wouldn’t swap our squad for any in the league.”

Wednesday’s results left Boro nine points adrift of the automatic-promotion positions and level on points with seventh-placed Derby County, but a top-two place remains the ambition with 15 games to play.

“I think you have to believe we can finish in the top two,” said Friend. “I’m not one to say, ‘Until it’s mathematically possible’ or anything like that, but at the moment, 15 games is a quarter of season.

“We’ve really got a good chance of still pushing for that. Teams will wobble, this is the business end, and luckily we’ve got a lot of experience, not just with the manager and staff, but with the playing squad as well. If we use that and keep the form we’ve shown this year, anything can happen.”