THIS time last year, the country was in lockdown and Middlesbrough were in grave danger of going down. Jonathan Woodgate’s side were 19th when football was mothballed in March 2020, and dropped to within a place of the relegation zone when their first game back in June resulted in the 3-0 home defeat to Swansea City that led to a hasty change of manager.

So, any assessment of the club’s performance in the current campaign has to start with an acknowledgment of just how bad things were 12 months ago. Yes, there is an understandable frustration at missing out on the play-offs. Yes, there are gaping holes in the squad that have not been adequately addressed. But the fact that Neil Warnock’s team are heading into this weekend’s final game with Wycombe Wanderers sitting in tenth position, a whopping 23 points clear of the bottom three, means the season has to be judged as a qualified success. The challenge now is to build on it next term and mount a successful push for promotion.

Warnock’s appointment for the final eight games of last season proved the starting point of Boro’s recovery, with the veteran campaigner quickly identifying strengths he felt he could build on as well as key areas of concern. A host of experienced players left last summer – Daniel Ayala, George Friend, Adam Clayton, Rudy Gestede – but Warnock honed in on a core he wanted to retain. That core, starting with Dael Fry and Paddy McNair at the back and encompassing Jonny Howson, George Saville and Marcus Tavernier in midfield, has provided the bedrock for this season’s progress.

It has been supplemented by some unexpected success stories, most of which owe much to Warnock’s superb man management and some inspired work on the training ground, overseen by the 72-year-old and his trusty lieutenants, Kevin Blackwell and Ronnie Jepson. For most of last season, Anfernee Dijksteel and Marc Bola looked out of their depth and destined for a quick return to League One. This term, with Warnock having wrapped a grandfatherly arm around them, they have been two of the best defenders in the Championship.

Duncan Watmore’s renaissance has been even more remarkable, with the decision to recruit the injury-plagued forward already looking like one of the most inspired pieces of transfer business in Boro’s recent history. Watmore looked to be heading for the footballing scrapheap when he was released by Sunderland last summer, but after three weeks of unpaid training, a notable sacrifice that plenty of other players would have bridled at, Warnock saw something he liked and decided to take a chance. His faith has been repaid handsomely, with Watmore topping Boro’s goalscoring charts with nine goals from 29 league appearances. Little wonder, the Teessiders were so keen to tie the 27-year-old down to a long-term deal.

The summer acquisitions of Grant Hall and Sam Morsy also proved successful, even if the duo have both struggled with injury issues during their first season on Teesside. Hall is the kind of no-nonsense centre-half Boro have lacked for a number of seasons, while Morsy improved as the season progressed before his campaign was prematurely halted by a knee injury in early April. Both players are likely to be influential performers next season.

While most of Warnock’s key decisions paid off this term, not everything was a success. Kieffer Moore’s decision to rebuff Boro’s advances and head to Cardiff threw last summer’s attacking recruitment drive into something of a state of panic, and by the end of the window, the Teessiders were scrambling around for a striker. Chuba Akpom arrived in a £2.5m deal from PAOK Salonika, even though by Warnock’s own admission, Boro’s recruitment team had not watched him at first hand. A return of five goals from 37 matches is not quite what was hoped for.

Akpom’s struggles were compounded by Britt Assombalonga’s fall from grace. By handing the striker the captain’s armband last summer, Warnock was clearly hoping to spark an upturn in both commitment levels and form. Neither materialised, to the point where Warnock was forced to call Assombalonga into his office last month and instruct him to bring forward his departure date because his services were no longer required. That Ashley Fletcher joined him through the exit door was largely a consequence of the 25-year-old’s dreadful injury record, although his refusal to sign a new contract also highlighted the new financial reality in which Boro, and most of their Championship rivals, now find themselves operating.

Those financial restraints were a key factor in Warnock’s January transfer business, which proved something of a mixed bag. Yannick Bolasie and Neeskens Kebano have shown flashes of talent, but neither was able to make a truly telling impact in the second half of the season. Nathaniel Mendez-Laing was always going to take a fair bit of time to get back to full fitness, but if you find yourself having to sign free agents, there are always likely to be significant strings attached.

Boro’s best moments tended to come before Christmas, when they twice briefly climbed into a play-off position. January’s controversial home defeat to Blackburn, when Jarrad Branthwaite went unpunished despite kicking Fry in the head, proved a pivotal moment, sparking a five-game winless run that effectively ended hopes of a top-six finish.

If Boro finish in tenth position next season, Warnock already accepts the campaign will have been a failure. For now though, while a mid-table finish does not represent a stellar achievement, it is nevertheless a significant and welcome step in the right direction.