STEWART DOWNING’S contract situation at Middlesbrough remains unresolved, with Tony Pulis admitting the winger’s unavailability is far from ideal given his side’s defensive weaknesses ahead of tomorrow’s televised game at Blackburn Rovers.

Boro are without Daniel Ayala and Aden Flint for the trip to Ewood Park, with the former serving a one-match suspension in the wake of his midweek dismissal at Sheffield United and the latter nursing a hamstring injury that could sideline him for up to a month.

Pulis will be forced into a major defensive reshuffle, but will not be able to field Downing on the left of his remodelled backline as the 34-year-old is still locked in a contractual dispute that prevents him from featuring in the starting line-up to avoid Boro having to grant him an automatic 12-month extension to his current deal.

The situation has become somewhat farcical, with Downing appearing as a substitute in four of Boro’s last six league games, but despite talks between the Teessider and the club’s chief executive, Neil Bausor, it has proved impossible to broker a compromise.

“We won’t be able to start Stewart,” confirmed Pulis. “It’s an ongoing issue and you’d have to talk to the club and Stewart about that.

“It’s a situation that is not good for anybody. If you look at the big picture, then you just hope it gets resolved for everybody’s sake. But that’s obviously down to Neil and Stewart to get together and try to bash things out.”

Boro’s defensive options were reduced last month when Danny Batth’s loan move from Wolves was cut short to enable him to complete a permanent transfer to Stoke City, and the absence of both Ayala and Flint has caused a major headache.

Ideally, Pulis would like to stick with a five-man backline tomorrow, but that would mean fielding Ryan Shotton and George Friend alongside Dael Fry at centre-half, with Paddy McNair and either Rajiv van La Parra or Marcus Tavernier playing at wing-back.

Alternatively, Pulis could turn to Nathan Wood as a central-defensive option, but while the 16-year-old performed creditably in the early rounds of the Carabao Cup, a full-blooded Championship game against a Blackburn side featuring Bradley Dack and Danny Graham would be a markedly different challenge.

“There are options in terms of some of the younger lads, and we will look at that,” said the Boro boss. “The issue with that is that if we were doing it with a stronger team, you’d be much more willing to give it a go.

“What you don’t want to do is play the kids and they have a bad experience at such an early stage of their career. We’ll take a view on it. Playing them in cup competitions is all well and good, but it’s different to playing them in a league game like this, especially when you’re away from home and your team is not quite as strong as it maybe could be.”

Boro head into the weekend in sixth position, and while Wednesday’s defeat ended a run of six unbeaten league games, Pulis remains optimistic about his side’s promotion hopes.

“We’re in there, and it’s all to play for,” he said. “There’s 15 games to go. Sunday is going to be difficult - I don’t think anybody can hide that fact - but we’re still well placed.”