NEIL WARNOCK has identified a “lack of leaders” as a key issue that needs addressing as he attempts to guide Middlesbrough to Championship safety in the remaining eight games of the season.

Having replaced Jonathan Woodgate on Tuesday morning, Warnock will take charge of his first game as Boro boss tomorrow afternoon when his side travel to relegation rivals Stoke City.

The wily 71-year-old has carved out a reputation as a footballing firefighter thanks to his success in previous relegation battles, and is confident he has inherited a squad that is capable of keeping itself out of the bottom three.

However, after presiding over four days of training at Rockliffe Park, he has also identified some of the factors that have contributed to Boro’s struggles this season.

A lack of leadership has been a key issue all campaign, with Woodgate having made a conscious effort to bring down the average age of the squad, and Warnock will be calling on his side’s senior players to step up and seize the initiative tomorrow.

“They seem a genuine bunch,” said Warnock, who is embarking on his 18th job in management. “They’ve all worked really hard and they’ve listened to what I’ve asked of them.

“I try to look at all the players, even those that maybe haven’t been so frequently in the team, because I am going to give them a chance and we are going to need everybody in these last eight games.

“Fitness levels are very good, but I think every club in the Championship knows they could be a little bit more and we will be working very hard on that, especially with the heat and a lot of games coming up.

“We’ve probably not got that many leaders in the dressing room, and that is not being detrimental to them, that’s just the nature of the way the players are. But I’ve already seen one or two really good things in there, and we are trying to work on a pattern to give ourselves an advantage.”

Whereas it might ordinarily be hard for a new manager to hit the ground running so close to the end of the season, and in such unusual circumstances, Warnock is hoping his extensive experience will help him make an immediate impact.

In 2016, the Yorkshireman guided Rotherham United to Championship safety despite taking over a side that were third bottom when he was installed with 16 games to play, and he has spent this week relying on methods that have been proven to work in the past.

“Kevin Blackwell and Ronnie Jepson have been with me, and we’ve put sessions on that we’ve put on in the past in this situation when we know we are scrapping for our lives,” he explained. “The lads have taken it on board and I think they’ve enjoyed it. That is one thing I do ask of players, that they try to enjoy it.

“It was nice to be back at work. It’s something I have missed over the last few months, I’ve missed that banter with the players in the dressing room and around the training ground.

“I know quite a few of the players. I’ve tried to sign a few of them over the years, so I’ve had a bit of banter with one or two about what a lucky escape I had. And it’s been nice for me to have a new group (of) players who are trying to impress me.”

Harold Moukoudi returns to Boro’s squad after missing last weekend’s calamitous home defeat to Swansea City because of injury, but Warnock is still assessing a couple of players who are struggling with knocks.

Middlesbrough (possible, 4-4-2): Stojanovic; Howson, Fry, Moukoudi, Friend; Roberts, Clayton, Saville, Tavernier; Assombalonga, Gestede.