FOR Isaiah Jones, there's one big difference as he assesses life now as a leading player in Michael Carrick's team compared to his Middlesbrough breakthrough when Chris Wilder was in charge a couple of years ago - the element of the unknown has completely disappeared.

Jones, a signing from non-league Tooting and Mitcham in 2019, was a stranger to most Championship opponents when he burst through in quite stunning fashion two seasons ago, having spent the prior campaign on loan in the Scottish second tier.

Jones struggled to build on his brilliant breakthrough last term as he battled issues off the pitch, which he's spoken openly about since the summer.

But this season he's re-established himself as a major Boro force - even though he admits he's now had to adapt to life as a "target" from opposition teams who know what he's all about.

That, though, is no bad thing, for it's forced Jones to work on adding new and different aspects to his game.

"I feel like a more complete player now," said the 24-year-old, who scored a fine double in Tuesday's win against Preston.

"When I broke through I was more raw. But now when teams analyse your game, I could feel them targeting me and knowing what I was going to do. So I'm trying to find different ways to beat them.

"I can't always go down the line and beat the man one-on-one every time. You've got to find other ways, and thankfully we saw that (against Preston). Sometimes I can get doubled up on and it just means I have to find other ways to get into the box or find space for my team-mates. That's what I'm trying to do every game and every day on the training pitch."

While Jones has had to adapt his game as an individual, that's also been the case for Boro as a team. Last season's brilliant attack was broken up in the summer but the new-look frontline continues to develop and improve, and Carrick's team blew North End away on Tuesday, with Jones, Matt Crooks and Morgan Rogers all impressing behind striker Emmanuel Latte Lath.

"Last season the attack was so good - the amount of goals we scored, the free-flowing football," said Jones.

"This year, we have different qualities in the team and we always have to play to each other's strengths. It's good to play with them and I think on Tuesday, even when we weren't at our best at times, we showed what we can do in the final third."

Rogers took his chance against North End and, with Sam Greenwood ineligible to face his parent club Leeds United on Saturday, the former Manchester City attacker is set to keep his place in the team at Elland Road.

"Every day in training Morgan shows top quality," said Jones.

"He's still young as well. This is like his first proper full season of being a first-team player and he shows what he's capable of each and every day in training. I was glad for him to get an assist (against Preston) and really show what he can do."


Jones is grateful to Carrick for the head coach's support in helping him through his difficulties off the pitch last season and the Boro supporters have also played a major role in helping the winger rediscover his flying form.

He said: "I've always respected and loved the fans. With everything I've been through in the last couple of years, without them I wouldn't be where I am today. I appreciate them a lot. I appreciate moments like Tuesday night a lot more now.

"When you're in that dark place you don't want to talk to anyone. But when you come out of it, and you see the fans have your back, it feels great. Hopefully I can repay them on the pitch."

Jones, to Carrick's relief, is available to face Leeds. The winger has been walking a disciplinary tightrope since picking up his fourth yellow card of the season against Leicester before the international break, but has managed to negotiate his last two outings without being booked.

He said: "That's why I came off (in the second half against Preston), to avoid getting that yellow and having to miss a game. I've done it for the last two games and hopefully I can do it again on Saturday.

"It's going to be a big game and hopefully we can take this momentum and get the three points.

"There will be no fear from us, 100%. We believe in our own ability. We know other teams have their own beliefs, but we have to just match them on the day and out-fight them mentally and physically."