AFTER a week when it has seemed inevitable Darren Randolph will leave Middlesbrough, it is testament to a talented, homegrown goalkeeper that the imminent departure of arguably the Football League’s best will not be felt quite as strongly as it once would have.

Aynsley Pears was enormously proud when he was asked to fill the big void between the posts when Randolph suffered his hip problem in October, but given the experience and reputation of the Republic of Ireland No 1 his absence meant the understudy had big gloves to fill.

Middlesbrough were already struggling towards the wrong end of the table, so the prospect of losing such a key and experienced member of the first team squad must have seemed like another huge dent.

But Jonathan Woodgate has always outlined an intention to give young players a chance and Pears, who he gave a chance to during pre-season when he started to impress, has taken it with both hands.

And today, almost two years after making his senior debut for Darlington in a 2-2 draw with Chorley on January 20, the 22-year-old is gearing up to face Wayne Rooney and Derby County at the Riverside Stadium this afternoon. It must seem a million miles away from National League North, not that he would change his path to the first team stage at Middlesbrough at all.

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“I came back to Middlesbrough as a 16-year-old after leaving school, that was my first year as a pro,” said Pears. “I started late really, compared to many. I wanted to get games under my belt, I was very inexperienced and I seemed to get injured a lot, so skinny and still growing. I was all over the shop really.

“But I managed to do enough to earn a two-year pro after that. I remember then that we went on and played in the UEFA Youth League with a really good side, that year when we lost to Paris St Germain in the last-16. It was brilliant to get to that stage really.

“That run helped me get a contract. When I went to Darlington on loan that year, that was when I felt like I was really starting to kick off. Getting games anywhere is the best you can do and I really loved it.

“It is about playing football that means something and that certainly did, I was playing with lads whose £50 quid win bonus meant a lot. It does.

“That was the first time I had played in front of proper crowds and everywhere we went Darlington fans were loud. I just wasn’t used to it. It’s weird because that was harder to get used to than it has been playing this year with Middlesbrough in front of bigger crowds in the Championship.

“I obviously had that spell at Gateshead and that helped too. I have stayed in touch with a few, Gary Brown is at South Shields now and he is one of my best mates. He is a Darlo legend of a guy, I speak to him every day. He is a great character, he helped me.”

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Brown is from Brandon, County Durham, where Pears has been brought up. The son of Stephen Pears, the legendary former Middlesbrough goalkeeper, has helped pave the way for him to follow in the footsteps of his dad.

As it happened, Aynsley was not even born when his dad played his last game for Middlesbrough in 1995, a testimonial which also saw Stephen score the last goal at Ayresome Park before he moved to play understudy to David James at Liverpool.

His upbringing and his father’s progression to becoming a coach at Rockliffe Park led to him being a Middlesbrough fan and when he speaks now there is a real sense of pride when he refers to pulling on jersey, and he is touched by the response he got when he mingled with supporters at a recent Christmas children’s party held by the club for invited members of the community.

“It’s nothing for us to come for an hour to things like this and it is worth every minute when you see the young fans’ faces,” said Pears. “I was never taken along to events like this when my dad was a coach here, or a player here.

“In fact I didn’t know anything about it when I was a kid really because I wasn’t even alive when he played … there is a picture of the last game at Ayresome Park with my dad, my brother and two sisters, for his testimonial and obviously I wasn’t even born then.

“I never even got to go to Ayresome Park, which was a shame. I was born in 1998 and my first big memory was going to the Carling Cup final in 2004.

“I went to Eindhoven two years later for the UEFA Cup final, and I remember the city (Markt) Square beforehand there, that was brilliant. My dad was a coach at the time, I went to games, so from the age of six-ish I came for eight years to every game. I absolutely loved it.

“That Eindhoven trip I can remember really clearly. The whole family went. I remember the cup run before it, when Massimo Maccarone scored, that late goal.

“Stuart Parnaby was playing that day and we went to Eindhoven with his dad, my dad, my family. I remember getting interviewed in the Square the day before by Hayley McQueen with Boro TV. It was a great time to be a Middlesbrough fan and hopefully we will get back there one day.”

Such European nights seem a long way off, but Pears sets his sights high. He might have only made 12 first team appearances for Middlesbrough in the league, but he has the taste for many more.

His path was not always plain-sailing either, having been an academy footballer initially only for him and his parents to decide he needed a break – and it could well have shaped him for a career in coaching when it all does eventually come to an end.

He explained: “I was originally part of the Middlesbrough academy at 9s, 10s and a bit of 11s. I got a bad heel injury, I had a conversation with my family about coming to train four days a week at the age of ten, while my dad was training the youth team during the day, coming home and picking me up, coming back, then going home. Four journeys a day.

“It was tough, so we decided I just should enjoy my football until I was 15 and that was when I came back. I started to train in goal, had a trial and I was picked up there from 15 until now.

“I was playing for Deerness Valley in the Russell Foster League back then. Then when I was a first-year pro me and my dad took over the running of the team. I was the manager of my mates with my dad, it was hard because I was going out with them on a night on the field and it was hard. That’s why I brought my dad in. They were more scared of my dad than me.

“I did find it hard. I couldn’t look at them straight in the face because one was my cousin, one my best friend. We trained Wednesday nights and he did it all really. I just picked the team and told them where I wanted them really. It was good fun for a year, we got beat on penalties in the county cup final.”

Those days are behind him now, even though he did enjoy it, because he felt more time was needed to focus on his professional development. The last few years he has experienced plenty at the Riverside, but to have played back-up to Randolph this season has provided a real step up.

“When I came in a few years ago there was Dimi Konstantopoulos, Jason Steele, Victor Valdes … I met him when I was 18 for a year … and Brad Guzan,” said Pears. “They are all different in their own way, I trained with Valdes and Guzan, when Steve Agnew took the team until the end of the season.

“I stayed over at Swansea, Hull in the Premier League … warmed up as the No 3 or 4 at the time. It was a great experience and it has helped me a lot. A lot of them don’t give advice. Some are helpful, some aren’t. They are just normal people.

“My dad has always been the best for advice for me because he tells me how it is. Darren has been very good to me too. He is a great lad, a good friend and if I need him he will help. He has played 100s of games, there are not many like that.”

Randolph’s absence this season has opened the door for Pears. From his 12 league appearances, Pears has kept seven clean sheets to help Middlesbrough climb away from relegation danger. He is indebted to Woodgate for being handed his chance, and he is determined to repay him.

“I am happy with how things have been going, I feel like I am trying to do the right things,” said Pears. “I have loved it so far. Nothing beats playing. I have done well on the whole, we have picked up points and kept clean sheets.

“Getting a few wins has helped too and it wasn’t a bad end to the year for us. It was a really positive end to December. I feel like the performances for the last 10-15 games have been good.

"Losing at Leeds wasn’t as good but barring that we have been so much more positive, we have come on and we just need to keep going. We are all really positive, the manager is really positive. Training has been excellent for a while - and we are finally getting our rewards."