NEIL WARNOCK is happy with Middlesbrough’s status as ‘promotion underdogs’ – but the Boro boss will be backing his players to make it to the Premier League provided they remain within a couple of points of the play-off places over the course of a hectic next six weeks.

The Teessiders entered December sitting in tenth position in the Championship table in the wake of last weekend’s disappointing defeat at Huddersfield, three points adrift of the play-off positions.

Warnock feels their current points tally is just about right, even if he maintains they could have had a couple more wins given the quality of their performances so far this season, but accepts his somewhat threadbare squad is about to be pushed to its limits.

This evening’s home game with Swansea City kicks off a run of nine league games in 32 days that will go a long way towards defining how the rest of the campaign pans out. If Boro are still in promotion contention come January 16, when they return to Championship action after the FA Cup third round, their manager will be starting to get excited.

“I think the Championship is there, and you have to grasp it,” said Warnock, who celebrated his 72nd birthday yesterday by overseeing a training session before settling into his Hurworth home for a meal and glass of red wine with his wife. “It’s an open league this year, although there’s probably still a couple of teams that stand out. I don’t know how Norwich beat us, but it’s teams that can get a result like that when they’ve really got no right to that do well.

“I’m disappointed with where we’re at position wise at the moment, but points wise, if we could hang in there two or three points away from the play-offs by the middle of January or so, I’d be delighted.”

Having guided Boro to safety on the final day of last season following his appointment as Jonathan Woodgate’s successor in June, Warnock felt he had an opportunity to start turning things around when his players returned for pre-season training at the end of the summer.

A pre-season trip to Cornwall proved a pivotal moment, with the Boro boss sensing a new-found desire within his players as well as a growing togetherness that has served them well in the current campaign.

When he was appointed, Warnock inherited a divided squad featuring a number of players who clearly wanted to head elsewhere. That is no longer the case, as evidenced by the growing number of Boro players who have signed new contracts committing them to Teesside for the long term, and while a lack of squad depth remains a concern, sights are being set firmly up the table.

“When I came in, the effort was there, but there was probably a few players who didn’t want to be there, which put waves in the sea,” said Warnock. “Back then though, we had to just get on with it.

“Since then, everything I’ve tried to do with the players has come off. They’ve all shown an improvement, and sometimes that doesn’t happen. But it has happened, they’ve all bought in to it.

“From our pre-season at Cornwall, I felt there was something quite good happening. That’s why I’m disappointed with where we are, because we’ve had opportunities to be far higher.

“I want to try and get even more out of the group and hope one or two take opportunities when they’re offered, although I think the lads are maybe trying to stay as underdogs and want to do that until the last minute. I think they’re planning that, and then they’ll win the last four or five games to sneak in!”

Warnock received some bad news on the injury front this week when the extent of Grant Hall’s latest problem was revealed. Having only just recovered from a hamstring problem, the centre-half has suffered a thigh injury that will sideline him for up to four months.

“It’s not good,” he confirmed. “He looks like he’s going to be out between 12 and 16 weeks. It’s not his original injury – it’s a front thigh injury. It was quite innocuous - he’s finished a physical session and just made a side-pass into the goals, but he’s pulled up holding the front of his thigh. The scan is worse than we first thought, but we’ve got different opinions. One surgeon would operate and one wouldn’t – I’m sure they’ll make a decision this week.”

Middlesbrough (probable, 4-3-3): Bettinelli; Dijksteel, Fry, McNair, Bola; Saville, Howson, Tavernier; Roberts, Akpom, Watmore.