MIDDLESBROUGH are in the grip of a full-blown defensive crisis, with Dael Fry having joined Daniel Ayala and George Friend on the list of defenders to have been ruled out for the rest of the season.

Fry tore his hamstring in training on Tuesday, and scans have revealed significant damage that will sideline him for around three months.

The centre-half will not feature in Boro’s final four games of the season – or the play-offs if they are able to get there – and has also been ruled out of this summer’s European Under-21 Championships in Italy, where he had been expected to form a key part of Aidy Boothroyd’s squad.

His absence from tomorrow’s home game with Stoke City is a huge blow, with Tony Pulis already having to manage without Ayala, who has damaged his knee ligaments, and Friend, who has suffered a serious groin injury.

As a result, Pulis is extremely short of defensive options. It is hard to see how he can stick with his preferred five-man defensive system, unless he calls up an untried youngster like Nathan Wood or plays Paddy McNair at centre-half.

A more likely scenario is that he will switch to a flat back four, with Ryan Shotton partnering Aden Flint at centre-half, George Saville lining up at left-back, and either McNair or Jonny Howson starting on the right of the backline.

“We’ve had a blow again this week with Dael,” said Pulis. “Dael has torn his hamstring, and it’s a bad one. It will be 12 weeks, so he won’t play this season and I don’t think he’ll be going away with England this summer either.

“Last week, I thought he was our best player, he played really well. He’s been growing in confidence, that’s the big thing with Dael. We’ve played him in all sorts of positions – we played him at left-back for a bit of last week, we’ve played him at centre-half, he’s played at right-back and at holding midfield. He’s been very good, and we’ve been delighted with his progress.”

Fry’s injury was sustained in a light training exercise, and Pulis feels his injury is a result of the heavy workload he has been subjected to over the last few years. The 21-year-old has been involved in all of England’s age-group teams, and Pulis thinks his schedule has caught up with him.

“He’s had a little problem all season with his hip flexor,” he said. “He’s played a lot of games, he’s just a young lad, and he’s been away with England in every international break. He’s not had a summer off for six years. It doesn’t surprise me that the kid has picked up an injury, it’s just over-use really.

“We did a training session which was not at full tilt on Tuesday, and that was where the problem occurred. I’ll speak to him now we know the full extent of it.

“We didn’t know initially, but it’s come through now with the scan, and it’s a real bad one. We weren’t at full tilt when it happened, I just think it’s been overused.”

Ayala and Friend have also been ruled out for the rest of the season, and Pulis admits he cannot believe he has lost three of his most important defenders in just over a week.

“Dani has really serious ligament issues, and he won’t play until the beginning of next season,” he said. “It’s another big blow. George won’t play this season either, so you’ve got George, Dani and Dael.

“Losing those three players, I just can’t believe you lose three defenders in just over a week. How’s your luck? And two of them are injuries I just can’t believe you get.”

The defensive situation might not be as acute had Danny Batth not left Teesside in January to join tomorrow’s opponents, Stoke City.

Batth spent the first half of the season on loan at Middlesbrough from Wolves, but Pulis was unable to hold on to him when Stoke offered him a permanent move to the Potteries on attractive wages.

“Danny’s a great lad,” said Pulis. “Although he didn’t start all the games, his greatest asset was his character. He had a fantastic character and a great spirit.

“Speak to anybody around the football club, in the dressing room or around the place, and they’d say he was a wonderful lad and a great pro. We have missed him. But there was a fabulous offer on the table from Stoke, it was close to home for him, and it was something he couldn’t turn down.”