MIDDLESBROUGH have done plenty of commendable things this season.

While a number of their Championship rivals have hurtled headlong into financial trouble, breaking the league’s Financial Fair Play rules as they go, the Teessiders have worked assiduously to bring down their wage bill to ensure they are operating within the regulations. Unlike a number of other clubs in the second tier, Boro’s process of weening themselves off Premier League parachute payments is complete.

Jonathan Woodgate has negotiated the first eight months of his managerial career in impressive fashion. He has stuck to his attacking principles despite some difficult challenges that have been thrown his way, and has won the respect of his squad, both as a coach and man-manager. Having been a somewhat controversial selection when he was chosen to replace Tony Pulis, he has earned the backing and trust of most Middlesbrough fans.

He has also championed the promotion of youth players, and in handing a league debut to seven academy products, has maintained Boro’s record of developing youngsters at Rockliffe Park. In the likes of Aynsley Pears, Djed Spence, Hayden Coulson and Marcus Tavernier, the Teessiders are developing players with an extremely bright future. They will either form the bedrock of Boro’s first team for years to come or ensure the club’s continued financial viability if they are sold. The fact that most have signed new long-term contracts is an added bonus, reflecting a solid structure of executive management.

So far, so good, yet as they prepare to host the Championship’s bottom club, Luton Town, at the Riverside on Saturday, Boro cannot afford to ignore the league-table shaped elephant in the room.

Boro head into Saturday’s game in 18th position, seven points clear of the relegation places. They have been in the bottom half of the table for the whole of the season, and have won just eight of their 32 league matches. They have scored just 34 goals in those 32 games, with only one Championship side having recorded fewer. In purely statistical terms, this has been a dreadful season.

Clearly, there are mitigating factors. Boro lost a large number of experienced players at the end of last season – Aden Flint, John Obi Mikel, Mo Besic, Stewart Downing, Martin Braithwaite – and their desire to cut costs meant they were not really replaced. Woodgate has had to deal with a horrendous run of injuries, most of which have struck down his senior players. How many other Championship clubs could have survived for the best part of two months with just one fit centre-half? Name another team in the second tier that would not have been hampered by the long-term absence of Britt Assombalonga?

Steve Gibson understands that, hence his willingness to stand by Woodgate when things were getting especially tricky in the autumn. The Boro fans also appreciate the scale of the task their former skipper has taken on, hence their unwavering support in the last few months. They see ‘one of their own’ striving to make a success of his hometown club, and generally agree that performances over the course of the campaign have been better than the points tally suggests.

And yet, here we are, two-and-a-half months out from the end of the season, and Boro are heading into two matches that will go a long way towards determining how the rest of the campaign pans out. Luton at home, then Barnsley away; back-to-back games against the teams sitting in the bottom two positions in the table in the space of a week. For all the mitigation to this point, there are no excuses if things go wrong now.

Boro’s injury situation is much-improved from where it was a month or so ago. Assombalonga is back and match-fit, having made his first start since early December in Tuesday’s draw at Wigan Athletic. Ryan Shotton and George Friend should both be available for a first-team return on Saturday, having been eased back to fitness via a couple of reserve run-outs in the last couple of weeks. Daniel Ayala, another key man, is not too far away.

Woodgate was backed in January, and while the loss of Patrick Roberts to a hamstring injury was unfortunate, Ravel Morrison arrived as a replacement. Boro also signed Lukas Nmecha, Harold Moukoudi and Dejan Stejanovic, and while there might not have been much of a cash outlay, with the majority of the newcomers being recruited on loan, the Teessiders were more active in last month’s transfer window than the vast majority of their Championship rivals.

Cast your eye down the squad list for Saturday’s game against Luton, and unlike on so many occasions this season, it will not have been cobbled together from the only players who are fit. Assuming Shotton and Friend are available, Woodgate will have to leave proven senior professionals out of his matchday 18. His starting XI will be an attractive blend of experience and youth. Compare it to the squad that was available for November’s thrashing at Leeds and it will be like chalk and cheese. Man for man, Saturday’s Boro side will be a match for just about any other team in the second tier.

That is a huge positive, but it also brings pressure, both on the players lining up in the home ranks and on Woodgate himself. Because of everything that has happened this season, they have had a free pass to this point. That no longer applies.

Put simply, if Boro fail to beat Luton, they will have no excuses to fall back on. Similarly, if they leave Oakwell in nine days’ time with their current seven-point gap to the relegation places having been reduced, they will have badly underperformed. They have ticked a lot of boxes this season, but it is time that results started reflecting that.