YESTERDAY, Neil Warnock was at Teesside International Airport promoting a new sponsorship deal that will see Middlesbrough’s players wear the airport’s logo on the back of their shirts. This evening, as his side host Shrewsbury Town at the Riverside in the opening round of the Carabao Cup, he will be hoping a successful 2020-21 season takes flight.

For most of last season, Boro were grounded in the bottom half of the Championship. With Jonathan Woodgate manning the controls, they appeared destined for League One. Even with Warnock in the cockpit, for the final eight games of the campaign, they threatened to crash land.

Survival was secured, though, and having agreed to remain in charge, the challenge facing the Middlesbrough manager this season is to plot a course to the upper climes of the table. For all the difficulties inherent in managing a club bereft of parachute payments, and still dealing with the fall-out from a failed spending spree in the wake of relegation from the Premier League, it is one he is ready to embrace.

There have been frustrations this summer, with a succession of players turning down Boro in order to move elsewhere. Yet as the pre-season period has drawn to a close, so Warnock has begun to see pleasing signs.

A training camp in Cornwall was a positive experience, enabling Warnock and his staff to bond with a squad that remains relatively new to them. Results have been decent, culminating in this week’s training-ground thrashing of Newcastle. And performances, both in training and matches, have caught the eye. So much so, in fact, that Warnock is worried his reputation as a long-ball dinosaur might be under threat.

“I’ve told them all that with the football they’ve been playing, if they’re not careful, they’re going to get me a bad reputation,” joked the Boro boss, ahead of tonight’s season opener. “I’m sure they’ll change that though and I’ll be able to kick it out of them…”

Warnock’s pre-season optimism contrasts to the warnings he was making towards the end of last season about the glaring deficiencies that made keeping Boro in the Championship one of the toughest jobs he had faced in his managerial career.

Clearly, now he has taken on his position full-time, there is a need to send a different message to the players at his disposal. Nevertheless, listen to Warnock speak about pre-season, and it is clear he has gained a new appreciation for some of the previously-hidden strengths he has gradually begun to uncover.

“It’s not so much the young lads coming into the squad that have stepped up as the lads that were here,” he explained. “I think they’ve stepped up massively. (Anfernee) Dijksteel has been very good, Djed (Spence) is getting there, and Marvin (Johnson) seems to get better every day.

“Paddy (McNair) played at centre-back the other day and played really well. Jonny (Howson) and Sav (George Saville) have been good, and then we’ve had Tav (Marcus Tavernier) and Wingy (Lewis Wing), who have both been excellent.

“Then, the two strikers (Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher), what can you say about them? A lot of clubs in the Championship wish they had two strikers like we’ve got..”

Tonight’s League Cup game is Warnock’s first opportunity to test his new approach in a competitive environment, although the fact the Championship programme does not begin until next weekend means the opening game of the campaign will still have something of a pre-season feel.

“I’ll be playing the full team, although it’s another pre-season game in my eyes,” said Warnock. “I don’t think we’re going to win the Carabao Cup, but I’ll be taking this seriously then judging it game-by-game after that because it’s every week for a while.”

Hayden Coulson is unavailable because of an illness, although there was positive news when the full-back’s coronavirus test produced a negative result.

Middlesbrough (probable, 3-5-2): Pears; Dijksteel, Hall, Wood; Spence, Wing, Howson, Tavernier, Johnson; Assombalonga, Fletcher.