GEORGE FRIEND and Ryan Shotton will be back in the Middlesbrough squad for the visit of Luton Town, with head coach Jonathan Woodgate hoping their returns will help bring greater steel to his side.

It is not that neither Friend nor Shotton are guaranteed to slot straight back into the starting line-up against the Hatters, in fact it would be something of a surprise, but the experience the pair bring will be a boost to the rest of the playing staff.

Friend has only appeared in three games this season and his last appearance was against QPR on November 9 because of a thigh problem. Shotton, meanwhile, has not played since October 23 because of an ankle issue.

The absence of the duo has had a big impact on the way Middlesbrough have had to operate given a lack of defensive options, particularly at centre-back.

Midfielders Jonny Howson and Paddy McNair have both operated there in recent months, doing decent jobs, while Woodgate signed Saint Etienne defender Harold Moukoudi in January to increase his options.

Next week should see the return to full training for £2m summer buy Anfernee Dijksteel and it is hoped Daniel Ayala will be around to call on after injury in around a month’s time.

Given how youthful Middlesbrough’s side has become this season, to have the likes of captain Friend and Shotton available again should help Woodgate at a time when he wants his team to show greater resolve – particularly when taking the lead in matches.

“They have both played 60 minutes and 90 minutes now, they have ticked every box so let’s see if they play,” said Woodgate. “It is fantastic to have players with their experience around, what they bring, a wealth of it.

“Ryan and George have played a lot of games. They have been there, seen it and done it. When was the last time I had a really experience centre-back or left-back on the bench who I could say go and do a job for me? It’s important now I have got that.”

Even following the arrival of Moukoudi on deadline day, Middlesbrough have been light at the back. There was no centre-back among the substitutes at Wigan on Tuesday when Dael Fry had to leave the pitch with a slight pain.

And he thinks having the likes of Shotton and Friend available, even if they are not starters, will be of benefit to what Woodgate wants to see from his Middlesbrough team.

“You do get that with younger players at times, naivety,” said Woodgate.

Woodgate continued: “I was a young player once and I was the same. When you are older, you see out games a bit better, more resolute. You need to keep the team together. 
“I’d say Tuesday was an example of that, and I’d say that against Fulham and Brentford as well. If you get back into the game you need to see it out. 

“The equalising goal against Wigan was a bit of a freak, Harold’s header, but that can be stopped. It doesn’t just happen with Harold heading in, players should be in better positions to start with. It shouldn’t even get to Harold.”

Friend and Shotton are both out of contract in the summer and just last week Woodgate admitted he wants to keep the former at the Riverside next season. He was asked about the pair yesterday and he suggested that "no decisions" have been made on most deals as yet.

Middlesbrough, meanwhile, have ruled out any suggestion that Ben Gibson has already been lined up to move back to the club in the summer to boost Woodgate’s defensive options.  Gibson has returned to the club’s Rockliffe Park HQ to train away from Burnley after a bust-up, the details of which have not been revealed. Clarets boss Sean Dyche opened up on the stand-off with the centre-back on Thursday when he described the “unique situation”.

Dyche explained how he was happy with the way Burnley had handled the affair having allowed Gibson to return to Teesside to train with Woodgate’s squad – and it is likely to be for the rest of the season.

Woodgate was advised only to make light reference to the situation in his pre-match press conference and was keen not to get into the reasons for the move.  The Middlesbrough boss said: “Ben is training at Rockliffe, he is a Burnley player. I want to talk about Middlesbrough he is not our player.”

Gibson will train with the Middlesbrough first team to help raise standards, even though he will not be able to play before the end of the season. He is still on a lucrative contract so the prospect of a return to Teesside in the close-season is not cut and dried by any stretch. Watford were unable to meet Burnley’s demands to do a deal in January.