FORMER Middlesbrough manager Steve McClaren has backed Jonathan Woodgate to keep Championship football at the Riverside Stadium at the end of his first season in charge of his hometown club.

And McClaren, who guided Boro to its only major piece of silverware 16 years ago this month, thinks that once that has been achieved, chairman Steve Gibson will be faced with a decision as to where he wants his beloved club to challenge.

McClaren still holds Middlesbrough close to his heart having remained in the Teesside area with his family and he has kept an eye on how Woodgate has fared in his rookie year in senior management.

Relegation concerns among fans have grown ahead of this Saturday’s trip to third from bottom Barnsley, having seen their advantage over the bottom three reduced to six points following disappointing results against Wigan and Luton Town.

McClaren still believes that Woodgate will get Middlesbrough safe, but then thinks the club could be at a crossroads in determining what direction it wants to head next season and beyond.

“The Barnsley game is huge,” said McClaren, speaking at Rockliffe Hall where he has helped to launch a Golf Academy and the full exclusive interview can be read in Wednesday’s The Northern Echo.

“Once you get over the 40-point mark in the Championship you pretty much know you can plan ahead. Survival was the key after the start to the season they had and they will have no problem doing that.

“It’s really a decision in the summer of where Middlesbrough want to go, what’s next? For many years they have always been challenging in the play-offs, the Premier League, they came back down and still challenged.

“This is the first year they have not. Decisions have got to be made whether that continues or whether they go for it again.”

Middlesbrough sit on 37 points after losing to Luton on Saturday when boos rang around the Riverside at the half-time and full-time whistles.

It has been an indifferent first season for Woodgate in charge and a real learning curve, having had to rely heavily on the club’s graduates to make up his squad in a bid to deliver results.  Woodgate’s first management post is a far cry from when McClaren took his first steps at the Riverside in 2001, having left Sir Alex Ferguson behind at Manchester United to succeed Bryan Robson on Teesside in the Premier League.  McClaren not only guided Middlesbrough to the Carling Cup success in 2004, he also secured European football twice and they reached the UEFA Cup final in 2006 before leaving to take on the England job.

“I thought at the beginning of the season, ‘Woody, that’s a tough job’ in terms of what they were losing, and when the season started I thought it was an even tougher job. He must be realising that,” said McClaren.  “I have watched with interest from afar. He has handled it well, done well. I thought he found a team before Christmas, when they went on a good run, from the Stoke game at home I watched when they struggled for 60 minutes and then turned it round. They won that and went on a great run.  “Manager of the month came along and I just hoped he could keep that going. That’s football. It can be in your hand at one stage but it can fall out very quickly.  “He has to get back finding a way to win because he needs to start picking points up. They have big games coming up, they don’t want to get dragged down too far. I thought they were out of it but they are getting dragged back in.”  After the trip to Barnsley, who beat Fulham over the weekend, Middlesbrough face automatic promotion contenders Leeds United and Nottingham Forest at the Riverside.  January recruit Ravel Morrison will hope to be involved in those matches having been overlooked for the visit of Luton. Morrison, on loan from Sheffield United for the rest of the season, has been named in the Jamaica squad for the first time and he could figure against Spain in a friendly next month.

* Steve McClaren was speaking at Rockliffe Hall after launching his own golf academy with coach Simon Robinson. Read the full interview in Wednesday's Fraser from the Fairway column.