THIS time last year, Middlesbrough were about to hurtle into meltdown before heading into lockdown. After beating Preston on New Year’s Day, the Teessiders embarked on a ten-match winless run that threatened to result in relegation and ultimately cost Jonathan Woodgate his job.

Thankfully, we all know what happened next. Neil Warnock rode to the rescue as Woodgate’s replacement, Boro won three of their final five matches last season to avoid League One, and since the new campaign started in September, the sprightly septuagenarian has set about transforming the club.

As a result, while last season was all about looking down, the next four months will see Middlesbrough supporters casting their eyes up with plenty of justification.

Are Boro genuine promotion contenders? Despite Warnock’s understandable desire to keep expectations in check, the answer has to come in the affirmative.

Last weekend’s win at Wycombe lifted the Teessiders to seventh, just a point behind Watford, who currently occupy the final play-off place. Given that the next league game against Birmingham City marks the halfway point of the campaign, there is nothing unwarranted about Boro’s current position.

Warnock has changed his side out of all recognition in the last six months, and there is no reason things should regress in the second half of the season. True, Boro’s squad lacks depth, especially when posited against a number of the club’s promotion rivals. But the imminent return of Jonny Howson and Ashley Fletcher will help, and the presence of the likes of Djed Spence, Duncan Watmore and Britt Assombalonga on last weekend’s substitutes’ bench disproves the theory that Warnock’s options are damagingly limited.

As the promotion specialist has proved on a number of occasions already this season, he has enough to get by provided most of his key performers remain fit.

He has certainly overseen a successful overhaul of Boro’s defence, to the point where holding on to Paddy McNair and Dael Fry in particular this month is of more concern that scouting around for potential defensive additions.

Anfernee Dijksteel and Marc Bola have been a revelation, and both have been tied down to reassuring new deals. Spence and Hayden Coulson provide options for rotation.

Central midfield is another area that does not really need improvement, with Howson, George Saville, Sam Morsy, Marcus Tavernier and Lewis Wing providing a deep pool of talent. Like Dijksteel and Bola, Saville has come on in leaps and bounds this season, while Morsy’s mobilty means he has been an upgrade on Adam Clayton, who served Boro with distinction before departing in the summer.

It is in the final third where the Teessiders could do with some strengthening, a point Warnock acknowledges, but which it remains far from clear whether he will be able to adequately address in this month’s transfer window.

Warnock has been talking about the need for attacking wide players from the moment he walked through the door, but aside from the addition of Watmore as a free agent, his pleas have hitherto fallen on deaf ears.

With crowds still locked out, and the promise of a lucrative rescue package from the Premier League having seemingly disappeared, Steve Gibson is understandably reluctant to commit too much money to squad strengthening. At some stage, a financial reckoning will arrive in the Championship, and thanks to Gibson’s stewardship, Boro will be much better positioned than most.

However, given the way in which he has turned things around on a largely non-existent budget, Warnock will be right to feel aggrieved if he is unable to at least add a couple of loan signings to the ranks this month. Get them right, and they could prove the difference between finishing in the play-offs or narrowly missing out.

In an ideal world, a new striker would arrive too, but financial reality will almost certainly mean such a move proves impossible. If any criticism can be levelled at Boro this season, it is that neither Assombalonga nor Chuba Akpom have consistently delivered. If either was to embark on a sustained run of scoring, Boro would have just about every box ticked.

Whatever they go on to achieve in the remainder of the season, Warnock’s first full campaign will have been a success, and before too long, attention will inevitably shift to what happens come May.

The 72-year-old has deflected questions about his future so far, but will not be able to maintain the obfuscation for much longer. It goes without saying that Gibson will be desperate for him to stay, and the signs are that Warnock will agree to at least another season on Teesside. Assuming he does, it would be nice to think that Gibson and Neil Bausor would spend some of their time on succession planning so they are not left in the lurch when a replacement is eventually required.

For now, though, that remains something for the future. Hopefully, the sole focus in the next four months will be the inscription of another promotion to the Premier League onto Warnock’s already bulging CV.