HAVING suffered defeat on his comeback match for Middlesbrough, captain George Friend has urged his team-mates not to worry about those below them as Jonathan Woodgate’s side strive to stay clear of relegation trouble.

Friend was back in the Boro defence for the first time since suffering an injury set-back at Queens Park Rangers on November 9 when Luton Town left Teesside on Saturday with three points for the first time in 48 years.

The loss stretched Middlesbrough’s winless run to seven matches in the Championship, nine in all competitions, and led to the gap to the bottom three being reduced to six points ahead of this Saturday’s trip to third from bottom Barnsley.

Clearly the outcome at Oakwell could be significant in the overall relegation picture and it follows on from Middlesbrough’s two winless games against the sides below the Tykes, Luton and Wigan Athletic.

Woodgate will now have to spend the next five days trying to come up with a starting line-up that is capable of leaving South Yorkshire with maximum points, or the growing relegation fears will increase with the run-in approaching.

Friend said: “You have to find consistency and the best teams are consistent. We have been unlucky at times with results, but if we get that run going again then things turn so quickly. Everyone will be disappointed and frustrated about this defeat but we can recover.

“I don’t know about high stakes (at Barnsley) because there are 13 games left. We have to remain positive, confident in ourselves. When we start to worry about other teams there is something wrong and I can assure you there is no one worrying in that dressing room.”

Middlesbrough Fans have started to get restless again because of dates with automatic promotion contenders Leeds United and Nottingham Forest on the horizon after this run of three games against occupants of the relegation zone passes.

“I don’t think we can look at games and think like that, I don’t think anyone thought about us going to Preston, West Brom, and we would beat them,” said Friend.  “We didn’t look at those and think we will lose those so we had better win the others. It doesn’t work like that.  “You have to perform consistently to a high standard. We didn’t against Luton. We have to make sure we do for the next 13. It is not about picking your games. You have to do it every game. I am disappointed. Frustrated. We need to move on.”

Perhaps Middlesbrough’s youthful squad could be used as a factor, or excuse, for Middlesbrough’s inability to find a better level of consistency.  December’s excellent run form, which included four straight wins and led to Woodgate being named manager of the month, reduced the threat of relegation and improved the chances of finishing in the top half.  A failure to win since New Year’s Day, though, has seen fears of the drop into League One grow once again and Woodgate hopes that having the likes of Friend and Ryan Shotton available again will help going forward. Anfernee Dijksteel is set to return to action next week, while Daniel Ayala remains a month away from a comeback.

“You look at the pluses, the good performances, even in those performances there has been so much good play,” said Friend. “We have had goals disallowed, so many good things, you can’t dwell on the poor ones.  “We know we are good enough and performances like this against Luton aren’t good enough. We don’t dwell on things, we have dynamic staff, fantastic coaching staff and we won’t be allowed to be down.

“Maybe the manager can now find more consistency in his 11 with having most people available. He has had to change things around, play people in different positions during our poor injury run, but we have to step up whoever is playing – to show they are worthy of playing and we are fighting in every game. We have the squad and players to do that.”

One player who will not be involved for the next month or so is Dael Fry. His thigh injury picked up at Wigan prevented him from facing Luton and Friend was asked to slot in earlier than would have been expected.  Friend, who is out of contract in the summer and Woodgate has admitted he would like to keep him, is determined to make up for lost time having only played three times before Saturday because of his serious thigh and hip problem.

“For injury it has probably been the worst season of my career,” said Friend, who said there was nothing to report on talks over a new deal.  “I have never had an injury that has kept me out like this. Neither have I had an injury where I have come back and had a set-back.  “I had a target of surpassing 300 games for Boro this season and I thought I would probably do it, bearing in mind I was 15 off it at the beginning. There is still a possibility of doing it, but I have different goals now. It is about performing well.  “It feels good, it’s more in the head right now because I am really disappointed with the result – it’s not what I wanted at the Riverside. I wanted a clean sheet and it didn’t happen. I can look forward because it is another 90 minutes and the next run of games.

“Credit to the staff behind the scenes, the hard work ands support they have given me is fantastic. Dael’s injury accelerated my involvement. Once you are declared fit you have to be ready and I feel good.

“I feel fine. I wasn’t playing wing-back or left-back, that is more challenging coming back from injury than playing centre-half or left of a three. I will do my recovery properly, be professional and be ready to go again.”