Fulham v Middlesbrough: Youthful Boro can still make play-offs – Adam Clayton

Middlesbrough's Adam Clayton.
Middlesbrough's Adam Clayton.
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CRAVEN COTTAGE was famously the venue for a headline statement of intent from Middlesbrough back in May 2006.

Ahead of Boro’s Uefa Cup final in Eindhoven, former manager Steve McClaren – soon bound for the England job – selected a squad almost totally composed of young prospects for their final top-flight game of the season against Fulham.

The Boro team that started had an average age of 20 and was – and still is to this day – the youngest starting line-up in Premier League history.

Well over a decade on and the flower of youth is again blossoming at Boro, whose recent renaissance has featured some absorbing contributions from the likes of Djed Spence, Hayden Coulson and Aynsley Pears.

All three are likely to start tonight and it promises to be a special night for ex-Cottagers’ academy player Spence.

The current mood in the Boro ranks contrasts sharply with the emotions back on October 26 after a 0-0 draw in the reverse fixture with Fulham, who must make do without attacking talisman Alexsandar Mitrovic this evening through injury.

It was a game which saw the Teessiders drop into the relegation zone after failing to cash in on having an extra man for 73 minutes after the dismissal of keeper Marek Rodak, with the mood music being far from positive for Jonathan Woodgate.

Now, Boro are 10 points above the trap door, with their improvement having even prompted midfielder Adam Clayton to talk up their potential as outsiders for the play-offs.

He said: “Obviously we cannot get carried away. We need to keep our feet on the ground and not be complacent.

“But I think we can have a really good go at it. And yes, we’ve got half an eye on the play-offs. I think in this league you have to.”

It may be optimistic chatter, but still represents a barometer of the change in mindset at Boro since the start of December.

Last night, Boro completed the signing of Austrian goalkeeper Dejan Stojanovic from Swiss side St Gallen.

The 26-year-old, who has also played in Serie B with Bologna, has joined on a three-and-a-half year contract and comes in after the exit of Darren Randolph.

Last six games: Fulham WDWLWW; Middlesbrough WWWDDL.

Referee: D Webb (Co Durham).

Last time: Fulham 1 Middlesbrough 1, September 23, 2017; Championship.