HIS return to first team action might have arrived in front of a three-quarter empty Riverside Stadium, but George Friend loved being back – and he wants to ensure such a mentality rubs off on every one of his Middlesbrough team-mates.

In many respects Friend’s responsibility is greater now than it has ever been before as a Boro defender. Not only is he being asked to wear the armband, he is the oldest member of the squad and the club’s longest serving player.

The fact Woodgate is now taking him back a few years and asking him to compete for a centre-back slot, like he did so often earlier in his career, coupled with his outstanding leadership qualities, means Middlesbrough’s rookie head coach expects him to play a big part on and off the pitch.

Friend is intelligent enough to know that and he wants to do everything he can to make sure Woodgate’s first managerial post starts delivering positive results to go with some of the signs of encouragement there has been in each of the first two Championship games of the campaign.

Those signs were certainly not there in Tuesday night’s defeat to League Two’s Crewe Alexandra in the Carabao Cup, when boos greeted the visitors’ second goal and half-time. There was a repeat of the criticism from some supporters, albeit not as many, after the penalties defeat was confirmed.

Woodgate did make ten changes for that game, which will have formed part of his own learning curve because it suggests this Middlesbrough squad – which he himself labels "thin" - is not strong enough to cope with such changes. Nevertheless, Friend expected more from the young team sent out.

The 31-year-old said: “Crewe, credit to them, they tried to play and we found that when they came to us. But when you are a young player, these games are a chance to experience men’s football. If you can’t get up for it even with a three-quarter empty Riverside then you don’t deserve that chance. It should still feel special going out there and playing.”

To those sat in the stands it felt well short of special, even with the sight of the five new starters and the presence of emerging academy graduates Nathan Wood, Aynsley Pears and Stephen Walker as well as Marcus Tavernier playing.

Those four are the closest to joining Hayden Coulson on the pitch in a Championship game, but Friend knows very few players – including the more senior men and the summer recruits who made full debuts - came away with much credit against Crewe.

As the team’s captain, having returned from a really bad thigh tendon injury in that game, Friend knows he is tasked with leading by example to ensure that Middlesbrough’s players know exactly what is expected of them under Woodgate.

“Hayden has been the stand-out young lad who has started the season very well, he is a very good player and a humble,” said Friend. “We have always brought good players through here, the fact he is another to come through is fantastic for the club.

“I am pleased to see it and I do what I can to help and I will do what I can. I love playing for Middlesbrough, I love the team and area doing well. If I can help in anyway, I am proud to be club captain and hopefully I can help.

“It is easier to talk on the pitch in a more central role, like I played on Tuesday. You can pull players around you, it’s a little harder from left-back, even though you can still do it. My idol Paolo Maldini didn’t do too bad at it mind, and he slotted in at centre-half as well. That central role is a classic role to be able to talk and this head coach is a pretty good teacher of that.

“If you looked at young Nathan on Tuesday, he is 17 and the way he steps out with the ball, when I was 17 I was nowhere near that level. He is fantastic. It’s credit to Boro for producing young players like that.

“You need a scattering of experience in the team as well but Hayden has proven if you come in and do well you can step up to the plate and hopefully a lot more young players will follow.”

Middlesbrough will head to Blackburn on Saturday to face a Tony Mowbray team full of players with links to the Riverside, including Stewart Downing. Woodgate is expected to make a load of changes again, and it remains to be seen whether that means Friend will keep his place in the middle.

Daniel Ayala and Ryan Shotton have started the first two games against Luton and Brentford, which have only heralded a point so far. Friend, though, will not have any complaints if he does play there, in fact he will like it.

“When I first signed (seven years ago) it came off being a centre-half at Doncaster, then Joe Bennett moved so I moved over to the left pretty swiftly,” he said. “The way we are playing now, more expansive, the centre-halves have more responsibility to pass the ball, I like it.

“The four of us are already there competing … myself, Dani Ayla, Dael Fry and Ryan Shotton. Then that’s the four a squad would normally look to have. Dael coming back from injury will be a big for us as well, he will add to the competition for places and he won’t be far off.

“It will be good for me to be able to play a couple of positions too. When you play this type of style I think you need to be able to adapt positions, to get on the ball then you should be able to adapt to positions.”