IN footballing terms, the gap between Heritage Park, home of Northern League side Bishop Auckland, and the Premier League could hardly be wider. As he looks ahead to the next ten months, though, Middlesbrough new-boy Darragh Lenihan is hoping a journey that started at the former will eventually end at the latter.

Having joined the Teessiders as a free agent after turning down the offer of a new deal at Blackburn Rovers, Lenihan made his first appearance in a Boro shirt at the weekend as he played the opening 45 minutes of his new side’s 5-0 friendly win over Bishop Auckland.

He will turn out again at York City on Friday as Boro continue to crank up their preparations ahead of the new Championship season, but while non-league sides might be providing the opposition to Chris Wilder’s team at the moment, it is safe to say Lenihan has already been setting his sights considerably higher.

After turning 28 in March, the centre-half is in the peak years of his career, and while he would happily have remained at Blackburn if it was the only offer on the table, he feels a move to Middlesbrough has increased his chances of playing in the Premier League in the next few years. His new employers only finished one point ahead of his old ones last season, but he is convinced they are progressing at an impressive rate.

“I feel like it’s a club going in the right direction,” said Lenihan, who has signed a four-year deal at the Riverside. “The club have Premier League ambitions, and that’s where I want to be. I want to get to the Premier League, and I feel like Middlesbrough will give me a great chance of doing that.

“Obviously, the manager has been there and done it, and after having a few chats with him, he definitely knows what he wants. You look at how Middlesbrough finished last season, and there’s definitely something there to build from.

“If you look at where the manager took the club to, compared to where they were when he came in, then he obviously did very well, and he’ll be wanting to do even better this season. I want to be a part of that – and hopefully we can achieve what we all want to.

“The club is ready to take that next step. You look around at the facilities and everything, and it’s definitely a Premier League club. I’ve said that from day one.

“Then, if you look at what the team did last season, I know they just missed out on the play-offs in the end, but they were right up there fighting. We want to improve on that this season and get better.”

The Northern Echo:

Unsurprisingly, the bookmakers make last season’s relegated teams the favourites to win promotion from the Championship this season. Norwich City and Watford have retained the majority of the players that accompanied them out of the top-flight, while Burnley appear to be rebuilding effectively under new manager Vincent Kompany.

Huddersfield, Sheffield United and Luton will harbour ambitions of taking the next step after missing out in the play-offs last season, while West Brom, Stoke and Cardiff have been active in the transfer market after underperforming last term.

Boro still need to sign a goalkeeper and at least two new centre-forwards, but provided Wilder is able to recruit the players he is targeting, the Teessiders should be part of the promotion mix, with Lenihan’s arrival a key part of their summer transfer jigsaw.

“It’ll be a tight division again,” continued Lenihan. “It always is. Obviously, you have your teams like Fulham and Bournemouth that were very good last season, but I think if you take those two teams out of it, everything else was there for the taking for everybody else last year.

“Obviously, I was up there with Blackburn, and Middlesbrough were too, and neither team missed out by very much in the end. It’s going to be a wide-open division. You need a bit of luck along the way, but the aim is obviously to definitely get into the top six, and hopefully into the top two. That has to be the ambition.”

While Wilder and the rest of Boro’s recruitment team were understandably delighted to seal Lenihan’s signature, his departure from Ewood Park was a major disappointment to everybody at Blackburn.

The defender skippered Rovers under Tony Mowbray, and received a good luck message from his former boss when his move to Middlesbrough was confirmed.

“He (Mowbray) sent me a lovely message once I signed,” said Lenihan. “It was a message of support, and he really just wished me well, which was a real credit to him as a manager and as a person."