MIDDLESBROUGH are now the strongest contenders to bring Premier League football back to Yorkshire, according to former striker John Hendrie.
While Leeds United and Hull City are also in play-off places going into the festive period, Hendrie thinks Boro have the edge under manager Tony Mowbray.
Beaten only three times so far this season, Boro sit fourth in the table only two points adrift of second-placed West Ham United.
Things can change quickly as the games comes thick and fast but Hendrie, who twice helped Boro win promotion as a player, feels the signs are good again after two previously unsuccessful attempts to get out of the Championship.
The former Boro striker, however, feels the addition of a new forward may still be crucial in ensuring the club stays the distance.
“Although they are in a great position, goals have been a problem,” he said. “If they can get someone else in to score some goals, they will have a better chance.”
Australian international Scott McDonald and Dutch striker Marvin Emnes currently lead the way for Boro in terms of goals this season, but have managed only 12 between them.
Commenting on recent transfer speculation, Hendrie said: “I know they have been linked with Luciano Becchio at Leeds but I don’t know whether Leeds will let him go.
“If they get a recognised striker of that quality, they will have a strong chance.”
Hendrie, now 48, played alongside Mowbray at Boro in the early Nineties.
Assessing the impact of his former team-mate, who replaced Gordon Strachan as manager 14 months ago, he said: “He has brought back a lot of people who have an affinity to the club such as Steve Pears, Mark Proctor and Colin Cooper.
“He steadied the ship last year and this year he has assembled a squad to kick on. He has done a fantastic job and, out of all the clubs in this region who might challenge, I would say Boro look to have the best chance.”
Having identified a shortage of strikers at Boro, Hendrie thinks the priority for sixth-placed Leeds in the new year transfer window is finding a new centre-back.
With both Andy O’Brien and Alex Bruce now out of the frame at Elland Road, Leeds have been relying on Patrick Kisnorbo, loanee Darren O’Dea, or youngster Tom Lees to command at the heart of defence.
Hendrie, a member of the last Leeds side to win promotion to the top flight, said: “At the moment, Leeds are sixth in the table but I don’t think they deserve to be any higher.
“I have seen a good bit of Leeds this season and they are frustrating because they are so inconsistent, especially at home. The priority will have to be tightening up at the back.
“I think they will keep hold of their key players like Robert Snodgrass and Ross McCormack but they have to get a centre-back, who is quicker and better than what they have got.
“Prior to the last home game against Millwall, they had picked up only two points from 12 at home. And although they beat Crystal Palace and Bristol City at Elland Road, they wouldn’t have done that without Andy Lonergan playing so well in goal.
“I always fancy Leeds to win on their travels but they need more consistency. How long Jonny Howson is missing will be another important factor but, if they want to improve on last season, they have to strengthen in the new year.”
Fifth-placed Hull City have won three games in a row under new manager Nick Barmby and are now sandwiched between Leeds and Boro in the play-off zone.
Although Hendrie never played for the Tigers, he played alongside Barmby at Boro and the pair remain good friends.
They also have sons, both 17, who live together and play for the same youth team at Manchester United.
“I often spend Sunday mornings watching games with Nick. Our boys, Luke and Jack, even live in the same digs,” he revealed. “I like Nick, he was always a model professional both on and off the pitch.
“Winning promotion in your first job is a tall order and I don’t know if they will make the play-offs or not but, if they do, it will be one hell of an achievement.
“Win, lose, or draw, Nick will always take a balanced view and never get carried away with any results. With Nick, there are no gimmicks, and he won’t fill Hull supporters’ heads with false hopes or expectations. His last three games have seen some big results and the new owners at Hull have put their faith in him.
“It’s dog-eat-dog in the Championship and there are a lot of big spenders. The only setback so far has been the home defeat by Burnley.”
Another of Hendrie’s former clubs Barnsley have also been on the fringes of the play-off race in recent weeks but dropped to 12th in the table after last weekend’s televised home defeat against Ipswich Town.
Hendrie was briefly in charge of the Tykes at the end of his playing career and knows all about life in the hot seat at Oakwell.
“If Barnsley finish in the top 10, given the budget they have got, it will be a great achievement,” he said. “People have to remember that they don’t have the same resources as so many other clubs in the league but they are playing good football under Keith Hill.
“The biggest issue for Barnsley is whether they will be able to hang on to goalkeeper Luke Steele and midfielder Jacob Butterfield in January. Both are good players, especially Butterfield, and I will be very surprised if there are no sniffs.”
Hendrie works for the Leeds-based sports lawyers Blacks but still enjoys attending games as a pundit. Casting his eye over a festive fixture list that includes Leeds away at Barnsley and Middlesbrough at home to Hull, he admitted there were some ‘real hum-dingers’ to look forward to.
“Barnsley always regard the Leeds game as a Cup final and Leeds will be looking for revenge after the recent defeat at Elland Road,” he said.
“It’s great to see Yorkshire doing so well in the Championship especially when they are my old clubs or they involve my former team-mates.”