AS May approaches, ifs and buts are impossible to ignore as league tables so often result in regret at what might have been.

And so, Middlesbrough will have been by no means alone on Saturday evening when a glance at the standings prompted thoughts of how things could have been very different with a chance taken here or a draw turned into a win there.

But the overriding feeling after Boro's emphatic and impressive Cardiff City victory wasn't frustration at missing out on the top six this season, rather excitement at what was to come - both in the summer and next term.

So often at this stage of a campaign when there's little at stake in terms of standings, the season can't end soon enough. And yet for Boro and several of their in-form stars, the next game can't come soon enough.

Take Emmanuel Latte Lath, who took his recent goal tally to 10 in 11 games with his lethal strike to put Boro 3-0 up at Cardiff.

And Matt Clarke, who continues to shine defensively and set Boro on their way with his first goal for the club.

And Luke Ayling, who returned to the side after missing the Leeds game and delivered yet again with his cut-back for the fourth goal, his sixth assist in 10 games.

And Alex Gilbert, who was on the end of the Ayling cross and marked his first Championship start for Boro with a fine goal.

And Man of the Match Finn Azaz, who scored one and set-up two.

“You can see him growing and feeling more comfortable in his surroundings," said Carrick of Azaz.

"He’s growing in confidence and belief and is enjoying a good finish to the season. There are high hopes for next season with Finn, for sure."

The same could be said of several of his teammates and of the side as a whole. Last week's 4-3 loss to Leeds is Boro's only defeat in their last 11 games - a stretch of fixtures that has seen them take on five of the Championship's current top seven, as well as revitalised Sheffield Wednesday and QPR.


The Cardiff thumping and the recent form doesn't just excite with next season in mind, it bodes well for the summer transfer window. Latte Lath, Azaz, Gilbert - and even Morgan Rogers at Aston Villa - all signings last summer and all on the scoresheet on Saturday merits a nod of recognition to Boro's recruitment. That's without mentioning Rav van den Berg, class again on Saturday, and Seny Dieng, who made two crucial saves at 0-0 and 1-0.

This summer should be about adding to what is already there rather than having to replace and revamp as was the case 12 months ago. Next season is to be relished.

It's credit to the character as well as the talent of Boro's squad that they hauled themselves so close to a top six finish this season given the miserable start and the setbacks along the way. What was impressive about the manner of the Cardiff win was it came after the disappointment of seeing their top six hopes come to an end against Leeds. This season could so easily have petered out weeks ago but Boro will instead carry momentum and hope into the summer.

"It's encouraging," said Carrick, praising his players for their reaction to the Leeds defeat.

"It's alright me talking about it, me telling the players and encouraging the players but it has to come from them, self-drive and them driving each other on and it comes from the playing group really."

Such a comprehensive win was a fine reward for Boro's superb away following who made the long trip to the Welsh capital. Josh Bowler's stoppage time consolation didn't take the shine off the victory for Boro, who finished the game with academy youngsters Law McCabe, Charlie Lennon and Ajay Matthews all on the pitch. The future is bright.