NEIL WARNOCK has confirmed Britt Assombalonga will leave Middlesbrough when his contract expires at the end of the season, and has hinted that the striker might already have played his final game for the club.

Assombalonga moved to Teesside in a club-record £15m switch from Nottingham Forest in the summer of 2017, but while his four years in the North-East have seen him score 47 goals in just over 150 senior appearances, his impact has never quite lived up to the promise of his price tag.

Despite being handed the captain’s armband at the start of this season, a decision that Warnock has subsequently reversed, the 28-year-old has fallen out of favour in the last few months, to the point where he did not feature in the matchday squad in Boro’s last two matches against Preston and Millwall.

He is not expected to be involved when the Teessiders look to keep their distant play-off hopes alive at promotion rivals Bournemouth this afternoon, and with the offer of a new contract beyond the end of the season having been ruled out, he will leave for nothing when he becomes a free agent this summer.

“Is there an acceptance that he will leave in the summer? Yes, I think that’s been common knowledge for a few months really, from both parties,” said the Middlesbrough manager, who will be in the opposite dug-out to former Boro boss Jonathan Woodgate this afternoon.

“It’s difficult because he’s been my captain. I’m not going to mess him about. It’s not his fault his contract is up and he’s on a good contract.

“I’ve had no problems with him, but I’m not going to take him (to matches) for the sake of taking him to put him on the team-sheet. We’ve got one or two other strikers on the team-sheet, I have to respect him as well. I won’t just use him like that. If the others are fit, it’s difficult to see him being involved.”

Boro’s attacking unit is set for a major overhaul this summer with Assombalonga’s strike partner, Ashley Fletcher also due to reach the end of his current deal. Fletcher has been offered a new contract on significantly reduced terms, and is still pondering his options ahead of the opening of the transfer window.

With Nathaniel Mendez-Laing only currently contracted until June, and both Yannick Bolasie and Neeskens Kebano on short-term loan deals that are due to expire at the end of the season, it is conceivable that Warnock could be looking to recruit four or five new forwards this summer.

The last two weeks have given him an opportunity to step up his recruitment drive, and some initial contact has been made with a couple of targets who are set to become free agents in a couple of months’ time.

It remains a difficult time to scout and assess players though, with large swathes of continental Europe locking back down as coronavirus cases increase, and with the uncertainty likely to continue throughout the summer, Warnock is desperate to avoid a scenario where he is scrambling around for last-minute additions in the final month of the window.

“Say we’ve got two or three main targets, then I’d like to think we could get one early, even if it’s not our main target for the rest of the summer,” he said. “I’d like to think we’d got one in straight away, so we’d know we had somebody sorted and it would take the heat out of things a bit.

“That’ll be what I’m trying to do. With the way the world is, it’s hard to know exactly how the summer will progress, so the last thing I want to do is be scrambling around in August with nothing already sorted.

“You try and look at who is affordable, and it’s just a matter of getting through the best. If we can get English, I would, and hopefully we can get one or two in (early) and then it’s not so urgent. I’d like to think we could get a Bosman or two and then look at what’s available. But you’d be surprised how difficult it is - everybody wants target-men don’t they?”

Burnley have been linked with a summer move for Dael Fry this week, but Warnock has laughed off suggestions that the Clarets could be lining up a £10m bid for the centre-half.

“I’m not anticipating losing him at all,” he said. “I saw the figures mentioned, I mean that wouldn’t buy his left lace, let alone his body.”

Paddy McNair and George Saville flew straight to Southampton from Belfast yesterday after completing their international duty with Northern Ireland, and will be in the squad for today’s game despite having played against Bulgaria on Wednesday night.

Middlesbrough (probable, 4-2-3-1): Bettinelli; Fisher, Hall, Fry, Bola; Howson, McNair; Bolasie, Kebano, Mendez-Laing; Fletcher.