FOR most 18-year-olds, a first Championship start would represent a sudden elevation to the senior ranks. For Middlesbrough centre-half Nathan Wood, however, it feels as if it has been a long time coming.

Even before he became Boro’s youngest ever first-team player at the age of 16 years and 75 days, the word around the Teessiders’ Rockliffe Park academy was that Wood was a special talent. The chatter intensified in the wake of that historic debut, which came in a Carabao Cup tie against Notts County in August 2018, but rather than being the start of a sustained run of senior action, Wood’s maiden outing proved the precursor to two years of waiting.

While the likes of Djed Spence, Hayden Coulson and the now-departed Aynsley Pears got their chance in the first team, Wood was left kicking his heels. Not any longer. Yesterday’s full Championship debut marked another hugely significant step in the development of the Ingleby Barwick-based defender, and the fact he came through it with flying colours speaks volumes for the teenager’s poise and potential. Wood is a hugely exciting talent, and after his display against Nottingham Forest, it is a safe bet he will not have to wait another two years to prove it.

“I’d say I’ve been waiting two seasons to make my first start in the Championship,” said Wood, who is the son of former Middlesbrough full-back Dean Gordon. “(On Saturday) morning, Dael (Fry) dropped me a nice text saying he couldn’t play and he wished me the best, which I’m grateful for. He’s a great lad and he helps me out loads, like all the other lads.

“(On Friday), I knew I was probably going to play, then (Saturday) morning it was, ‘Right, you’re definitely playing, get ready’. I was ready – I’ve been ready my whole life to play for the Boro. It’s my dream.”

It was certainly a dream debut display, with Wood hardly putting a foot out of place as he helped his side record a second clean sheet in the space of five days.

Neil Warnock’s decision to switch to a back four proved justified, with Wood looking at home alongside Paddy McNair and both Marc Bola and Anfernee Dijksteel maintaining their excellent recent form as they reverted to more orthodox full-back roles.

McNair’s calming presence undoubtedly helped Wood settle into his new surrounds, and while the absence of supporters might continue to be a major source of dismay, playing at a deserted Riverside might also have worked in the youngster’s favour.

“I’ve played here plenty of times in front of no one with the 23s and the 18s, so I know what it’s like,” said Wood, in an interview with BBC Tees. “It just felt like a normal game to me. I’m sure it would have been a lot different if there had been 20-odd thousand, but because there was no one it made me feel a bit more comfortable.

“I was first involved with the first team when I was 16, and I’ve been in and around it (since then), but this is the first season where I’ve really felt like a first-team player. To get my first start, it’s how I mean to go on. I just want to keep playing and keep playing, and hopefully the manager puts his trust in me so I can play more.”

Warnock became convinced of Wood’s ability to step up to senior level when he played him at centre-half during pre-season, and while the Boro boss is understandably keen not to pile too much pressure onto the Teessider’s shoulders, he is clearly excited at the prospect of him continuing to develop over the next few years.

“We gave him a round of applause in the dressing room afterwards,” said Warnock. “It was his first full game and he deserved it. He did really well.”