NEIL WARNOCK will turn his attention to the free agent market next week after yesterday’s domestic transfer deadline passed without Middlesbrough being able to sign a striker.

Warnock started the day targeting “five or six” forwards, having decided to abandon attempts to bolster his defence in order to focus his attention on trying to strengthen his attack. Ashley Fletcher will miss this afternoon’s home game with Reading, and it is feared the striker’s hamstring problem could sideline him for a number of months.

Warnock held a series of talks ahead of yesterday’s 5pm deadline, most notably with regard to Kenneth Zohore, who joined Millwall from West Brom, Stoke City’s Lee Gregory and Everton’s Yannick Bolasie, but was unable to pull off a deal.

However, while Football League clubs are now unable to sign contracted players until the start of January, they are still able to recruit free agents who are not contracted to a club.

Warnock has identified a couple of potential options, and will look to get at least one player into Rockliffe Park on a trial basis at the start of next week.

“(On Thursday) night, I was looking at six strikers because we hadn’t got a clue what was going to happen,” said the Boro boss. “I would like another one in to go with what we’ve got, and I’m sure we’ll do that.

“There’s a couple of people out of contract that are quite interesting, so early next week, there’s the option of getting a couple of lads in. I’m still very confident we’ll get a striker in over the next week.

“We’re not really looking at defenders at all now – we’re only really looking at strikers. That’s as far as we’ll be looking – I think that’s more of a priority if I’m honest.”

Warnock had hoped to do some business yesterday, although he continues to insist he understands why money has been so tight this summer.

“I was talking about what we could do if we got four or five good lads in – that came down to one or two,” he said. “But I don’t mind that, I’m with Steve (Gibson) on that. You can’t spend more than your income, and he can’t keep putting his hand in his pocket all the time.

“We’ve got to be sensible. Every manager wants another couple of players and I want to try to get up that table and be there or thereabouts, so you want the best for your club. But you’ve also got to be realistic. We’ve never had a time like this, not in my lifetime. You can’t just pull money of a tree – we’ve got to be sensible, and I think Steve appreciates that I’ve been working hard to try to bring sensible targets in.”

Boro completed two pieces of outgoing business yesterday with Aynsley Pears completing a permanent move to Blackburn Rovers and Stephen Walker re-joining League One side MK Dons on loan.

Pears, who was a product of Boro’s Rockliffe Park academy, signed a four-year contract at Ewood Park, with Rovers boss Tony Mowbray having first inquired about his availability at the start of the summer.

The 22-year-old made his senior Boro debut in an EFL Cup game against Crewe Alexandra at the start of the 2019-20 season, having previously had loan spells at Darlington and Gateshead, and established himself as the club’s first-choice shot-stopper under Jonathan Woodgate last season.

He made 25 first-team appearances last term, but found himself behind both Marcuss Bettinelli and Dejan Stojanovic in the pecking order under Warnock this season.

Walker has re-joined MK Dons on loan for the rest of the season, having previously helped the club win promotion from League Two in the 2018-19 campaign.

Boro return to action when they host Reading this afternoon, and Warnock is looking forward to seeing Patrick Roberts begin his second spell on Teesside after re-joining on a season-long loan from Manchester City earlier this week.

Roberts’ form was somewhat up and down during his first loan spell in the second half of last season, but a hamstring injury prevented him from making the kind of impact he would have wanted.

Warnock senses things will be different this time around, with the 23-year-old return significantly enhancing Boro’s tactical versatility.

“I know it sounds silly because it’s only a few weeks since he was last here, but he seems to have matured,” said the Boro boss. “That might be because of the way we’re playing and the way he knows the lads. It hasn’t been a case of him having to get used to things – he’s been able to come straight in and be himself.

“He gives me an opportunity to play different styles and systems. Patrick is quite manoeuverable and he can fit in here, there and everywhere, and enable us to change systems. We’ve tried different people in different areas – we’ve tried Tav (Marcus Tavernier) in the hole behind the striker and out wide – but we haven’t really got somebody who can go past an opponent and thread a ball through.

“I’ve felt sorry at times for Britt (Assombalonga) because he’s worked tirelessly. I just feel Patrick will give us another option to help the two strikers."