MIDDLESBROUGH have established themselves as favourites to sign striker James Collins – but the Teessiders are set to face a difficult decision this summer over the future of Chuba Akpom.

Collins is set to become a free agent when his contract at Luton Town expires next month, and Boro are one of a number of clubs to have held talks with the Irishman and his representatives in the last week.

With the majority of Championship clubs facing the same financial pressures this summer, the free-agent market is more hotly-contested than ever, hence Neil Warnock’s desire to make some early headway once the transfer window officially reopens later this summer.

Collins is one of his main attacking targets, with the 30-year-old having played a key role in Luton’s rise through the divisions since moving to Kenilworth Road from Crawley Town in 2017.

The Ireland international scored ten Championship goals last season – more than any member of the Middlesbrough squad – and is also understood to have held discussions with Cardiff City and Bristol City since the end of the campaign.

Boro officials are aware of the intense competition for his signature, but are hopeful of being able to tie up a deal that would see Collins move to the Riverside ahead of the start of pre-season training in early July.

The forward is set to spend the next few days pondering his future, with a number of suitors believed to be pressing him for a decision before the end of the week.

Warnock, who is also interested in Rotherham United striker Michael Smith and free agent Junior Hoilett, is hoping to sign three strikers this summer and would like to have at least one deal boxed off before the end of the month.

“We’re optimistic that we’re going down the right lines to bring the right lads in,” said the Boro boss, before returning to his family base in Cornwall in the latter half of last week. “We’re going for players that we feel will help us next season.

“It’s been busy. We’ve looked at quite a lot of lads now, and I’ve obviously spoken to one or two agents who have been talking about their own clients. That’s what we’ll carry on doing.

“Neil Bausor and myself will carry on working on that, and we speak to Steve (Gibson) quite a lot to keep him informed of what’s going on. I’m optimistic that we can get two or three agreed reasonably quickly, then the rest will take care of themselves after that.”

Boro are set to confirm their retained list shortly, although it is looking increasingly unlikely that Nathaniel Mendez-Laing will be offered a new deal at the moment. The forward joined on a short-term deal on deadline-day in February, but only managed two starts in the second half of the season.

Akpom’s future is also somewhat uncertain, with his failure to hold down a place in Warnock’s first-choice starting line-up having alerted a number of clubs to his possible availability this summer.

The 25-year-old scored five goals in 38 appearances last season, and while the departure of Britt Assombalonga and Ashley Fletcher has left Boro extremely short of attacking options, there is a chance Warnock could allow Akpom to leave later in the summer if his own attacking transdfer moves fall into place.

The Teessiders spent around £2.5m to sign Akpom from PAOK Salonika last summer, and would be looking to recoup the vast majority of that sum if they were to move him on. Nottingham Forest and newly-promoted Hull City have been credited with an interest.