FOR all Michael Carrick was obviously delighted with the result on Tuesday night, the two biggest plus points for the Middlesbrough head coach came in the final minutes when he was able to make two substitutions - and give two players very special moments for different reasons.

First, Carrick turned to Matt Clarke and gave the defender his first taste of action after almost 14 months out injured. And then, soon after, Law McCabe, the Middlesbrough born 17-year-old, was brought on to make his first senior appearance for his hometown club.

On Clarke, Carrick said: "In some ways that was the best part of the night." And on McCabe, the head coach added: "Just brilliant. I love that feeling of giving the young lads a chance and being in a position to do that."

For Clarke, the return to action was a reward for his desire and determination to get through the toughest spell of his career. After joining from Brighton last summer, the 27-year-old made just six appearances before he was struck down with a problematic back injury. Clarke worked closely with Boro's medical team to first get to the bottom of the problem and then start the slow journey back to fitness.

It's been a long road with some "dark days" but having got some Under-21s football under his belt, Clarke has been a regular on the bench in recent weeks before he finally got the chance to put his injury nightmare behind him on Tuesday night.

"I was absolutely delighted for him," said Carrick.

"I know the result is great, scoring goals and playing well, but seeing Clarkey back on the pitch after what he's been through. There's more to it sometimes than results. He's been through some tough times, he's been through ups and downs.

"He must have had some dark days, doubting whether he'd get back, but he's got back. He's back on the pitch. It's a hell of an achievement for him so I was delighted for him to get back and sample that and get the first one out of the way. Brilliant.

"He's trained for quite some time. He's chomping at the bit and is desperate to play and desperate to be part of things. It's not easy to get everyone on the pitch, that's the tricky bit, but I've wanted to do it at some point and this was a good chance for him."


McCabe's opportunity came about after impressing Carrick and his coaching team playing for the Under-18s and Under-21s. Carrick often gives Boro's academy players the chance to train with the first team and McCabe caught the eye at Rockliffe - as has Fin Cartwright, the 16-year-old who was an unused substitute against Preston.

The message from Carrick is clear - impress and you'll get a chance, regardless of age.

He said: "Again, it has to be the right time and they have to deserve it. Law has trained with us and done really well, he's gone back with the 18s and trained with the 18s and 21s and done well.

"He has a great attitude, I like him a lot in terms of how he handles himself and how he copes with it.

"He's getting better all the time and it was a good opportunity for him to take that next step and sample it, enjoy it and now he can look to the next one.

"That's the message to all the young academy players, we want to give them a chance. We can't give everyone all the same chance but we'll watch them, we're assessing who's doing what when they come up with us and train, who settles in well, who handles themselves well.

"It's a big part of what we do and it should be for the amount the club spends on the academy and the time and effort to bring players through. It helps when you have good lads, which we do. It's brilliant, it's good to see."