MIDDLESBROUGH’S summer recruitment drive has suffered an early blow, with James Collins understood to have agreed a deal to join Cardiff City rather than sign on the dotted line at the Riverside.

Boro’s failure to complete a deal for the Luton Town striker will be a major disappointment to Neil Warnock, who had identified him as one of his leading attacking targets and had spoken repeatedly about the need to sign at least one forward player at an early stage of the summer.

Collins’ availability as a free agent had been flagged up during the second half of last season, and the 30-year-old is understood to have indicated via his representatives that he wanted to make an early decision about his future once the campaign was at an end.

Middlesbrough officials held talks with the Republic of Ireland international and his negotiating team last week, and were hopeful of agreeing a deal despite strong competition from a number of their Championship rivals.

Bristol City were also pushing hard for a deal, but Cardiff look to have won the battle for Collins’ signature, with the striker understood to have given the Bluebirds’ board a verbal assurance that he will sign terms at the Cardiff City Stadium once the transfer window formally reopens later this summer.

Cardiff boss Mick McCarthy will be delighted to have got his own summer recruitment drive off to a successful start, but if, as looks likely, Boro miss out on Collins, the situation will have depressing parallels to the situation last summer, when Kieffer Moore opted to join Cardiff rather than move to Teesside.

Then, as now, Boro held their own discussions at the same time as Cardiff’s, and on both occasions, the Welsh club’s negotiations appear to have been more successful than those of their rivals.

Having missed out on Moore and a number of other forwards last summer, Boro found themselves in a position where they felt compelled to spend £2.5m to sign Chuba Akpom in the final few days of the window.

Warnock desperately wants to avoid another August scramble this time around, but the market for proven Championship strikers is extremely limited, with the vast majority of second-tier clubs having to work within the same set of financial restrictions imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Rotherham United’s Michael Smith is an alternative option, along with Famara Diedhiou, who is set to become a free agent when his current contract at Bristol City formally expires. However, the former remains contracted to Rotherham, meaning there would have to be a negotiation over a fee, while the latter is understood to be making wage demands that are regarded as unrealistic.

Boro have been scouting a number of strikers based overseas – Ronnie Jepson has made at least two trips to the continent to watch targets at first hand – but Warnock would understandably prefer to have at least one or two strikers at his disposal who boast a proven track record in the Football League.

Meanwhile, Boro have added another game to their pre-season schedule. Having already announced a trip to Bishop Auckland and three games in Devon and Cornwall, the Teessiders have confirmed a first visit to York City’s LNER Community Stadium on Tuesday, July 27.