IN some ways, the remaining nine matches of Middlesbrough’s season will resemble pre-season practice games. They will be played in June and July, will not be open to spectators and will see both sides able to make up to five substitutions. So far, so knockabout.

Yet it is no exaggeration to claim that those same nine matches will go a long way towards determining Boro’s fortunes for the next three or four years. Secure Championship survival, and the Teessiders can start to plan for next season from a position of relative strength given the financial problems facing a number of their rivals in the second tier. Go down to League One, however, and as Sunderland are discovering, it can be extremely difficult to recover.

That is the reality of the situation facing Jonathan Woodgate as he tackles unprecedented times. When the action begins today, it will feel low key, yet the stakes could hardly be higher.

For the players, the lack of spectators will be the most obvious novelty. Boro will be feeding piped music into the Riverside to try to generate a sense of atmosphere, but it will clearly not be the same as a normal matchday.

The Teessiders staged a friendly with Huddersfield last weekend to try to get their players used to the experience of a Riverside without fans, but it is still impossible to know how they will react when the real action begins later today.

“It’s new for every single player and nearly every single manager, so we can only judge it when the players are out there,” said Woodgate. “They have to lift themselves because if there’s an atmosphere in the stadium it can sometimes lift them.

“But you can look from another angle as well. If a player gives the ball away, the fans might boo or whatever, but now they’ll have no one in there so it might give the player more confidence on the ball if they haven’t got that (pressure) in the background. It will be interesting to see what happens.”

Swansea have the added complication of having to travel the length of the country amid lockdown restrictions, and today’s game was moved to a lunchtime kick-off to help the Welsh club try to come up with an acceptable travelling schedule.

Like Boro, the Swans have a number of loan players in their ranks, and Steve Cooper’s side were boosted earlier in the week when Liverpool agreed to extend Rhian Brewster’s temporary stay at the Liberty Stadium to the end of the season.

Brewster, who was part of the England Under-17s side that won the World Cup in 2017, has been a key performer since joining Swansea in January, scoring four goals in 11 league starts.

“I’m very comfortable with everyone’s situation,” said Cooper, who has also secured Newcastle United’s permission to continue playing goalkeeper Freddie Woodman. “Certainly, everyone who was available before the lockdown is available for the rest of the season.”