AMID adversity comes opportunity. These are difficult times for Middlesbrough, but for every setback, or perhaps more pertinently, every injured player who hobbles towards the treatment room, an opening is created that would otherwise not have existed.

At the start of the season, it was hard to envisage a scenario where Djed Spence would have been starting a Championship game. Even at the start of the month, the 19-year-old was still to feature in the squad for a league fixture. Yet on Saturday, with Anfernee Dijksteel facing a three-month absence and Jonny Howson needed at centre-half, Spence found himself lining up for his Championship debut. That he was not one of the 26 Middlesbrough players listed on the back of the match programme probably says it all.

Boro boast a proud record of blooding youngsters from their academy, but even by their own progressive standards, this is turning into a remarkable campaign. Since taking over at the start of the summer, Jonathan Woodgate has now selected six academy products their senior league debut. The last time that happened was the season that ended with Steve McClaren playing a team of kids at Fulham.

Woodgate’s hand has largely been forced, but he still deserves credit for sticking to his pre-season pledge to give the youngsters a chance. And while there has been a period of transition at Rockliffe Park in the last couple of years, with Craig Liddle replacing Dave Parnaby as academy head, Middlesbrough as a club merit praise for the way in which they have constantly championed their academy set-up and protected it from financial cuts.

“It’s renowned what Dave Parnaby did for the football club at the academy level, and Craig Liddle has taken over and has done an exceptional job as well,” said Woodgate, who was involved in the academy set-up himself before stepping up to a senior role. “It’s important that we keep in bringing these players through and pushing them through, and when they get the chance they stay in, it’s simple really.”

Five members of Boro’s weekend starting line-up were products of the academy, and all made a valuable contribution to the win. Aynsley Pears wasn’t tested until the 89th minute, but when he had to make a crucial save, he did, palming away Albie Morgan’s shot.

Dael Fry was assurance personified at centre-half, Hayden Coulson was here, there and everywhere on the left-hand side and Marcus Tavernier controlled the game like a senior pro as he drifted infield to ask questions of the Charlton defence. Ultimately, though, this was Spence’s day.

From the moment he helped initiate the move that resulted in George Saville’s first-minute match-winner, the teenager oozed composure and class. His energy and enthusiasm enabled him to nick possession on countless occasions as he pressed high up the field, and he spent much of the afternoon mimicking a right winger as he surged forward to deliver balls into the box. Charlton’s limitations meant he was rarely extended defensively, but when he was called upon to tackle and track, he did so diligently.

It makes you wonder why he had not been seen before, and while Woodgate was understandably diplomatic when questioned after the game, he said enough to suggest that things have not always been straight-forward with the teenager. That probably explains why Boro were able to prise him from Fulham in the summer of 2018, but having admitted to making his own mistakes as a young professional, Woodgate should be ideally placed to nurture Spence’s development.

“We know what Djed is capable of, but there have been times this season where we’ve had to sit down and have a few meetings together and tell him what his potential is,” said the Boro head coach. “Why hasn’t he played more. Pre-season I’d say. At times in pre-season he was good, but at times he was inconsistent. Then, when you go back down (to the Under-23s), it’s what are you like going back down?

“That’s what I look at. I speak to the Under-23 coaches regularly. How do you perform when you go down?

“When he’s been good, he’s been very good, but I will be right on his case because I’m not letting his standards drop. That is his standard right there and I need to really keep at Djed, keep him on his toes.”

Boro’s senior players will also be involved in Spence’s development, and on Saturday, George Friend and Paddy McNair were stationed in the East Stand to pass on instructions and encouragement to the teenager.

The pair helped talk the youngster through the second half, and both he and Coulson were receiving constant coaching from those around them on the pitch.

“When you’re young, you’re more fearless. You don’t really think. When you’re older, you think a bit more, but when you’re young, you just want to get out there,” said Saville. “You get more responsible as you get older – you feel like you’ve got more lying on your shoulders.

“You’ve got to do more things, think differently and help the young lads. At the end of the day, they need guidance and they need help out there. There are a few of us that are still quite young, but we’ve got a few games under our belt now and we’re enjoying the fact that we’re the senior players.”

And for all the praise that has justifiably been lavished on Boro’s youngsters, Saturday’s senior contingent also played a crucial role in what was a fourth league win of the season.

Ashley Fletcher battled away gamely in attack, Adam Clayton shored things up superbly as he returned to starting side for the first time since early October and Howson was magnificent on the right of the back three considering he has spent almost all of his career as a midfielder.

“What about Howson’s performance? I thought he was outstanding,” said Woodgate. “To go from attacking midfielder to playing right wing-back, then right-sided centre-back, that is a talent. That is a real talent and the more players you can have at the football club who lead by example like that and show younger players what it takes to be professional, the better.”

Howson’s resilience helped ensure Saville’s early strike was sufficient to claim all three points, with the Northern Ireland international scoring the only goal of the game after just 50 seconds. Ashley Fletcher nipped ahead of Dillon Phillips to prevent the Charlton goalkeeper from claiming Britt Assombalonga’s deflected strike, and when the ball broke to Saville, he slotted home his first goal of the season from inside the 18-yard box.

Boro created a succession of opportunities to add to their lead, but Assombalonga fired over the bar in the first half, Tavernier volleyed over from six yards in the second period and substitute Stephen Walker wasted two excellent opportunities to put the game to bed late on. Twice the youngster got himself into excellent positions in the final third, but on both occasions he failed to find the target when he should really have scored.

It all became unnecessarily nervy, and while Charlton were desperately poor throughout, the Riverside held its breath when Morgan fired in from the edge of the area with one minute remaining. Pears flung himself to his right, and Boro’s youngsters had come up trumps once again.