NEIL WARNOCK has thanked George Friend for the “pivotal role” he played in Middlesbrough’s successful survival push last season – and tipped the former Boro skipper to follow him into management when his playing career eventually ends.

Friend will make an emotional first return to the Riverside when his Birmingham City side take on Boro in a lunchtime kick-off today. The absence of spectators will take some of the shine off the occasion, but having been forced to miss Boro’s visit to St Andrew’s in December because he was injured, a fit-again Friend will have had today’s game highlighted in his diary for quite some time.

The 33-year-old established himself as a firm fans’ favourite during an eight-year spell on Teesside that saw him play in almost 300 senior games, and along with Blues team-mate Adam Clayton, who also departed last summer, he would have been assured of a rapturous reception from the Riverside faithful this afternoon.

Warnock will be issuing his own thanks, regarding Friend’s input, both on and off the field, as a critical part of Boro’s surge to safety in the final month of last season.

“He’s a complete pro,” said Warnock. “You can’t ask any more of anybody. There’s usually one at every club that’s like that, and he was special really, certainly in terms of us staying up. He helped me no end, not just on the field of play, but also during the week in terms of preparation.

“I’d only been there a few days, and he filled me in on a lot of information that I needed to get the team selection right. I’ve nothing but good things to say about him – and Adam Clayton as well. Clayts didn’t play many games, but he was incredible on the training ground for me. I’ve nothing but praise for both of them.”

Friend was offered a one-year deal to remain at the Riverside this season, although Warnock admitted he would be regarding him as more of a squad player than an automatic first choice.

Having been offered a two-year deal at Birmingham, with the option of a further 12 months, Friend wrestled with what to do for best. In the end, though, he reluctantly concluded it was time to move on.

“He (Warnock) said they wanted me to stay and offered me a year,” said the full-back. “Neil was brilliant with me from day one when he came in, and obviously we managed to stay up which was the aim.

“He was excellent all the time, I think he mentioned something about potentially being a squad player and at the time, personally, I felt I could offer more than that.

“It’s not that it was getting to a stage where I was unhappy or anything like that, it was probably the right time to move on and there were a few other family reasons and things like that for moving down south. The opportunity to work with Aitor (Karanka) again was something I wanted to do.

“It wasn’t one reason or one incident, it was a lot of different things but I really remember my time there fondly.”

For now, Friend is focused on trying to help Birmingham haul themselves away from trouble towards the foot of the table. In another couple of years though, he will be turning his thoughts towards the future, and having worked with him at close quarters, Warnock is convinced he will make an excellent manager if he decides to stay within football.

“I can see him being a manager,” he said. “He’s a very sensible, level-headed lad. He thinks about everything he says, and as captain, he was enormous for me.

“I think people like that are always looking to go on in the game. That’s what the English game needs – it needs lads like George coming back into it and becoming a manager.

“I think people like George should start lower down and not get thrown straight into a job. Start in League Two – I went non-league to start with, and I didn’t regret it at all because I learned so much in my first few years. That’s what it’s all about, getting the experience. He’s certainly got the experience at the playing level, now he’s got to start doing it on the management side when his playing days end.”