AITOR KARANKA claims the next few months will be a crucial spell in Curtis Main’s career, and has warned the Middlesbrough striker he cannot rely on his goalscoring ability alone to take him to the top.

Main made only his second Championship start of the season as Boro won 2-0 at Millwall at the weekend, and appears to have leapfrogged Lukas Jutkiewicz in the race to replace Kei Kamara, who is expected to be unavailable for at least another couple of weeks.

The former Darlington forward spent two months on loan at Shrewsbury earlier this term, and has struggled to hold down a place in Middlesbrough’s first team since signing under Tony Mowbray in 2011.

At the age of 21, he is still in the early stages of his career. But he is no longer considered a youngster, and Karanka admits it is time Main stepped up a level and cemented a position in Boro’s first-team squad.

“This is a very important moment for Curtis in terms of taking his career forward,” said the Middlesbrough manager, ahead of this afternoon’s game with Championship leaders Burnley. “He is not old, so you cannot say that he is an experienced player, but he is also not really young any more so you cannot treat him like a youngster.

“He is somewhere in the middle, and so it is important that he begins to take his career to the next level now. He has been playing very well and I am very happy with him.”

South Shields’ Main burst on to the scene when Darlington were a League Two club, but failed to fulfil his potential at the Northern Echo Arena before former Quakers boss Mark Cooper opted to release him.

He was offered a contract after a successful trial at Boro’s Rockliffe Park training ground, and made a handful of first-team appearances last season.

His goalscoring ability has never been in doubt, as underlined by the goals he scored against Leeds, Barnsley and Millwall last term, but other aspects of his play remain rather less refined.

His hold-up play has not always been up to scratch, so Karanka was especially pleased to see the striker linking play and working the channels at the New Den.

The Boro boss will want to see more of that when Burnley visit the Riverside this afternoon, and has urged Main to embrace hard work as he looks to further his career.

“He has been working well with me, and is one of the players who has been given an opportunity to come into the team,” said Karanka. “He played at the weekend and had a very good game.

“He might not have been having lots of chances, but he did a lot of things that I wanted him to do. He has a lot of quality, but he needs to mix that side of the game with hard work and working for the rest of the team.

“He needs to show the right level of work and commitment. If he can mix that with his skill and goalscoring, he could be a very good player.”

Today’s game marks the start of a hectic six-day spell that will also see Boro host Reading on Sunday before travelling to Bolton on New Year’s Day.

When Karanka was the assistant boss at Real Madrid, he was used to a lengthy winter break that enabled him to spend the Christmas period with his family.

The English schedule means he has been unable to return to his homeland, but he is looking forward to experiencing a traditional Boxing Day outing at the Riverside this afternoon.

“It’s all very new for me because in Spain, I would usually be on holiday by now,” he said. “It’s exciting because it’s my first experience of having a game on Boxing Day. I think all the fans are excited about this game, especially after we won the last one at Millwall.

“The players are looking forward to this too. When you win, your confidence improves. You can tell it on the faces of every player in training. There is a very good mood and the win was very important. I was confident in the past as well though because I trust 100 per cent in the work of my players and staff.”

Shay Given will continue in goal this afternoon, but despite Boro officials holding talks with his parent club, Aston Villa, the Republic of Ireland international is still due to return to Villa Park once his initial loan expires after the Bolton game.

“Nothing really has changed,” said Karanka. “I am sure the club are speaking to Shay and the people at Aston Villa. My position has not changed.

“I would like to have Shay here for as long as possible because he is a very good goalkeeper and a very good person to have in the changing room. I would be very happy to have him beyond January.”