JONATHAN WOODGATE is looking forward to a family reunion with Stewart Downing when Middlesbrough travel to Blackburn Rovers on Saturday – and the Boro boss thinks his brother-in-law is the “best player” his club’s academy has ever produced.

Downing made more than 300 appearances during two separate spells as a Middlesbrough player, but left the club under something of a cloud in the summer.

A clause in his contract meant Tony Pulis was unable to play him for a big chunk of last season as the Middlesbrough hierarchy did not want to trigger an automatic extension to his deal, and the 35-year-old left as a free agent in June.

A couple of weeks later, Woodgate was appointed as head coach, and had the Teessider been installed earlier, he might well have tried to keep Downing at his hometown club.

Instead, the midfielder is set to line up against Boro for the first time on Saturday, and while some supporters were happy to see him move on, Woodgate is adamant he has earned a place as a Middlesbrough great.

“Listen, Stewie has been a top player in his career, and for this football club,” said Woodgate, who is married to Downing’s sister, Natalie. “He’s the best player ever to have come through the academy.

“He’s won a lot of England caps, and he’s played at top clubs - Liverpool, Villa, West Ham, some of the biggest clubs in England.

“He’s moved to Blackburn now and I hope he does well.  Tony Mowbray has shown a good amount of faith in him, and I’m sure he will repay that back.”

Members of Woodgate’s and Downing’s family will be travelling across the Pennines to watch at Ewood Park, but while loyalties will be divided, Woodgate is confident he will be able to at least call on his wife and son, Carter, for support.

“All the family will be there, so I’ll be looking forward to it,” he said. “Carter will want Boro to win, and my wife will too, but probably the rest will be wanting Blackburn. That’s only natural.”

George Friend is available for Saturday’s game, and is set to replace Hayden Coulson at left-back, with the youngster struggling with a knock.

Former Blackburn striker Rudy Gestede is unavailable for the trip to Ewood Park as he suffered a hamstring injury in Tuesday’s Carabao Cup defeat to Crewe.

“Rudy Gestede has got bilateral hamstring tightness, so he will be getting an epidural tomorrow,” said Woodgate. “Hayden Coulson has a bit of a knock and could be struggling too.”