NEIL WARNOCK cannot believe that Premier League clubs did not attempt to prise Dael Fry from Middlesbrough this summer, claiming the centre-half is ‘more than good enough’ to play for at least half the teams in the top-flight.

Debates over Fry’s future have been a staple of recent transfer windows on Teesside, with Boro officials having rejected bids of £8m and £10m from Burnley in the summer of 2019.

The Clarets made a fresh inquiry about the Teessider in January, but opted not to rekindle their interest during the domestic transfer window that closed yesterday. With no one else firming up an interest, Fry remains on Boro’s books and will be at the heart of the defence that lines up against Reading this afternoon.

Warnock accepts that Fry has not always been at his best in the last few months, with his start to the current campaign having been hampered by a bout of coronavirus that forced him to sit out a fortnight of pre-season training.

However, the 23-year-old is back up to full speed now, and having stepped in to replace the injured Grant Hall in Boro’s last two league games, Warnock is delighted to be able to call on him as an integral part of his squad.

“Dael has come back, and when he plays like he can, he’s as good as anybody in the league,” said the Boro boss. “And he’s not far off the Premier League either. Half of the teams in the Premier League would have Dael, no problem.

“I’ve probably been very fortunate that he’s been rubbish because they’ve not been knocking on my door! He’s back in now though, so I want him right back to his best.

“Now the transfer window is closing, I can tell the truth. If I’m being honest, I’m very surprised that no one has come in for him this week. When I look at the centre-halves that clubs in the Premier League have been signing, I can’t see anything better than Dael.”

Fry was touted as a potential future England international when he first broke into Boro’s senior ranks in the 2015-16 season, but while he has established himself as an effective performer at Championship level, his career is still to really kick on to the next level.

Warnock is confident he can progress further, and is pleased to have seen signs of increased leadership and dominance in the defender’s last few performances.

“I think even he knows that he wasn’t playing up to his capabilities at the start of the season,” he said. “I never had any complaints when I left him out of the team, because I think he knew. But I really like it with the players when they show me something on the training ground.

“When you leave somebody out of the team, there’s two responses – they can either throw their bat and ball out, or they can knuckle down and show you. And that’s what Dael did. The injury to Grant obviously gave him an opportunity, and he’s not looked back.

“The last few weeks have been the best I’ve ever seen him since I came to the club. He was alright last year, but he wasn’t what I would call commanding. I think the last couple of games he’s been commanding, and it’ll be a good test for him against Reading.”

Boro lost a number of influential dressing-room figures in the summer with the likes of George Friend, Ryan Shotton and Adam Clayton moving on. That could have left a leadership vacuum, but Warnock has been delighted to see some of the previously quieter members of the squad stepping up to fill the void.

“One or two of the lads are growing up,” he said. “We’ve got quite a young squad, but I can see on the training ground where people who never previously spoke are taking responsibility.

“People like (Anfernee) Dijksteel – I don’t think he spoke when I first came, I had to ask him what his name was! But they’re taking responsibility now. Paddy McNair, I think he’s revelling in the situation, and it’s brought the best out of Dael too.”

Middlesbrough (probable, 3-5-2): Bettinelli; Dijksteel, Fry, McNair; Tavernier, Saville, Howson, Roberts, Bola; Akpom, Assombalonga.