NEIL WARNOCK is delighted that elite football is continuing through the forthcoming lockdown period, and is hoping his Middlesbrough side can be a “beacon” for thousands of Teessiders confined to their homes.

Unlike in the first lockdown period in the spring, when all professional sport came to a halt, elite sporting activity will continue behind-closed-doors when the Government’s new coronavirus regulations come into force from Thursday.

Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola has questioned whether football should be “an exception” if the rest of society is locking down, but having spent more than four decades in management, Warnock appreciates the benefits football can bring.

Whether it is maintaining a sense of community cohesion or simply providing a 90-minute escape from the challenges of everyday life, the Middlesbrough manager is pleased his players will be able to continue representing Teesside in the next four weeks.

And if they can maintain the form that has seen them string together an eight-game unbeaten run ahead of this evening’s trip to Blackburn Rovers, they might well be able to bring some much-needed happiness in an otherwise testing time.

“I read Pep saying that we should all close down, but I disagree totally with that,” said Warnock. “It’s bad enough not having fans in the stadium, but I don’t think Pep realises how important football clubs are to people, and not just in the Premier League but maybe even more so in the lower-leagues.

“For the fans in the towns and areas around the clubs, they’re hugely important. At a time like this, then mentally, to have your own team playing is vitally important. I’m glad the Government have realised that and gone with the guidelines they’ve issued.

“Hopefully, we can almost be the beacon in this tragic time. I’m hoping we can give the fans something to enjoy and get excited about.

“It’s strange – I’m here at a club and I’ve never even met the fans. I’ve never known anything like it. It’s the fans we’re doing all this for really. We were down at Bristol City the other week, and there were three Middlesbrough fans welcoming the bus into the car park. They weren’t going to be watching a game, they’d just come to see us, and that was incredible really. That’s how much it means to people. I just want to try to put smiles on faces in a difficult time.”

Boro’s recent form has certainly been well-received, with the Teessiders heading to Ewood Park sitting in fifth position in the table in the wake of Saturday’s home win over Nottingham Forest.

Having inherited a side that was hurtling towards relegation in the second half of last season, Warnock has engineered a remarkable turnaround despite limited investment, but rather than being surprised by the improvement in a number of his players, he regards recent performances as a case of potential finally being realised.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that professionals at this level have ability,” he said. “That’s without doubt. But the extra bit you need – that desire, that wanting to be better, that knowing exactly what you’re doing – that’s what brings their strengths out.

“It’s important all the way round the team, and I think we’ve got quite a few players that have probably surprised themselves with just how far they’ve come forward. They’ve reached a certain standard, but the challenge now is, ‘Can they keep that standard up? Can they play like that week in, week out?’ So far, the answer has been yes.”

Boro return to action this evening against a Blackburn side led by former Boro boss Tony Mowbray, and Warnock could once again have to field teenager Nathan Wood at centre-half, with Dael Fry still touch and go because of a sickness bug.

“He (Fry) was a lot better (on Sunday), but it’s important that he’s 100 per cent, otherwise Woody did ever so well on Saturday and it would be another test for him.”

Warnock is set to offer Duncan Watmore a short-term contract until January, although a deal is unlikely to be completed until after the forthcoming international break.

Watmore, who is a free agent after being released by Sunderland earlier this summer, is now in his third week of training with Middlesbrough’s first-team squad.

“He’s (Watmore) different, and available,” said Warnock. “He’s been training hard. We would probably only do it until January.

“It would be nice to do something, and I’m hoping something might be sorted after the international break. But as I’ve said before, what will be, will be really. We’ll just have to get on with it if we can’t.”

Middlesbrough (probable, 4-5-1): Bettinelli; Dijksteel, Wood, McNair, Bola; Tavernier, Howson, Morsy, Saville, Johnson; Assombalonga.