HE has been forced to endure the most difficult period of his career, but a fit and firing Rudy Gestede is determined to remind everyone of his goalscoring capabilities in the second half of the season.

As 2019 ended, Gestede had made just one league start in more than 22 months. A combination of injury, lack of form and a loss of faith from Middlesbrough’s previous manager, Tony Pulis, meant the 31-year-old was left frustratedly kicking his heels as his contract ran down.

A new year, however, has meant the turning over of a new leaf. Gestede made his first Championship start of the season as Middlesbrough kicked off 2020 at Preston, and weighed in with his first goal for almost two years as his side made it four festive wins out of four with a 2-0 victory.

Given his injury record over the last 12 months, there is every chance he will return to the bench when Tottenham visit the Riverside in the FA Cup third round on Sunday. Given his wages, and the lack of return on Boro’s £6m investment when they signed him from Aston Villa in 2017, he is unlikely to be offered a new contract when his current deal expires this summer.

Between now and then, though, he is desperate to make up for lost time and show Boro’s management and supporters what they have missed.

“I want to show what I can do because it has been a tough couple of seasons,” said Gestede. “I think when I first came to Middlesbrough, I showed that I could score goals, and I have done that right through my career, with any team I went to. But I haven’t really been able to do that for the last couple of years and I want that to change.

“It doesn’t go away. You don’t become a different player or a different person, you just need to be on the pitch and be fit to show what you can do. When the manager needs me, I will do everything I can for the team. If that means scoring goals, then I will score goals.”

Gestede’s injury record over the last two years has been horrendous, with a long-standing ankle problem sidelining him for months and a succession of less serious injuries hampering his repeated attempts at a comeback.

Yet the image of Gestede as an injury-plagued liability is somewhat misleading. He was actually fit and available for big chunks of last term, only for Pulis to banish him into the shadows after a difficult experience at Newport County that saw Gestede jeered by his own supporters as Boro crashed out of the FA Cup at the hands of League Two opposition.

“Last season was very, very difficult,” said Gestede. “I was there, fit, for most of the time, but I just didn’t get the chance to play. The manager decided early on that he did not want to play me. That’s part of football, and you can never give up. I like to think I continued to work hard and act professionally.

“Listen, we are very privileged to have the chance to be a professional footballer, so it is not like you are feeling sorry yourself. I have to make sure I give everything every day for the rest of my career, and if I do that, I will have no regrets. But you always need a chance to make a difference, and hopefully I will get that now.”

Jonathan Woodgate’s arrival has transformed Gestede’s fortunes, with the head coach having consistently talked up the attacking attributes of a player who was once regarded as one of the rising stars of the Premier League.

Unlike some of his predecessors, Woodgate did not attempt to rush Gestede back into action after he recovered from his latest injury issue, opting instead to reintroduce him via the Under-23s. Even when Britt Assombalonga became unavailable, Woodgate resisted the temptation to thrust Gestede into the starting ranks, knowing another setback could have proved terminal to the Benin international’s Boro career.

It was only last week, a couple of days before the West Brom game, that Woodgate called Gestede into his office and told him he would be starting at Deepdale, come what may. He stuck to his promise despite his side’s stellar showing at the Hawthorns, and for all that he is a rookie boss, Woodgate’s man-management skills are already making him a popular and respected figure within the dressing room.

“He has always been behind me,” said Gestede. “I was injured for a few weeks, and every day, he was asking me how I feel and when I would be coming back. We took a bit of time to make sure I came back fit, and now that is the case. He put me on the pitch when he had the occasion, and he has always been behind me. I am pleased for him.”

Gestede repaid Woodgate’s faith with a match-winning display at Preston, with Boro’s 2-0 win lifting them to within seven points of the play-off positions. The turnaround over the Christmas period has been remarkable, but was not entirely unexpected from within the squad.

“From the beginning of the season, I think the team spirit has been amazing from the start,” said Gestede. “Then maybe it was a little bit of a lack of luck, or maybe a lack of opportunity. Now, the momentum is good. Football is like this, when you have good momentum, you just carry on fighting and working hard. That is what we are doing.

“We know we’ve got quality in the team, and we know we are working hard in the training. The manager lets us know exactly what he is doing and what he expects from us. Now, everything is in our sight. We just have to carry on and not get too excited, because football can give you a slap at any time. We just have to make sure we keep this belief and carry on.”

* Middlesbrough are still awaiting confirmation of the extent of Daniel Ayala's ankle injury, but the centre-half will almost certainly miss this weekend's FA Cup tie with Spurs.

Ayala limped off during the first half of Boro's New Year's Day win at Preston amid fears he had suffered significant damage to his ankle.