JONATHAN WOODGATE has attempted to ease the disappointment of missing out on a play-off place by insisting Middlesbrough will be right in the promotion mix under Aitor Karanka next season.
Boro's failure to avoid defeat at Millwall on Saturday means tonight's trip to promotion chasers Reading no longer carries the importance from a Teesside perspective it could have.
It had looked as if the fixture would have been crucial in Middlesbrough's pursuit of a top six finish, but the defeat three days ago has effectively ended such hope already.
Woodgate was as frustrated as the fans at the Riverside Stadium after the disappointing display against Millwall, yet he does not see any reason to dwell.
The 34-year-old has been won over by the training methods and managerial approach introduced by Karanka since he took over in November – and thinks ending the season on a winning note would bode well for a pre-season with the Spaniard.
“Our aim was to win the last seven games and we have not been able to do that because we lost to Millwall, so we must now try to win our last three games and then go again next season,” said Woodgate.
“Everyone starts to believe they can do things if we can go on another run and win the next three before we go away for the summer. We might not be too far away from where we want to be, but how far away are we? We don't know. I am sure though we will go places next season.”
Karanka's 28 matches in charge have seen significant improvements, particularly defensively despite conceding two sloppy goals to Millwall.
The former Real Madrid No 2 has been well received within the dressing room, with every player left clear about what his demands and expectations are.
Karanka has already suggested he will be fielding his strongest available team for the final games with Reading tonight, Barnsley on Saturday and then at Yeovil on the final weekend.
Woodgate thinks that is the right approach. He said: “The manager has only been here for that number of games (28). Imagine had he been here all season then I think it would have been a different story. He has done well here.
“We have to finish strongly and try to win as many games as we can. He has done what he can with the squad he has inherited. It is not his squad.
“He is doing a great job. We need to improve in places. But you can always improve your squad regardless of what we think of this squad.”
One of the changes Karanka is expected to make at the Madejski Stadium is the return of George Friend to left-back.
Friend has been missing recently with a groin problem and he was introduced as a second half substitute against Millwall.
Karanka, who has had to tinker because of injuries and suspensions, will scrap the wing-back system he has started with in the last two matches.
But the Middlesbrough boss said: “If George was fully fit he would have played from the beginning against Millwall because he is a very good player.
“But I needed to think about the game on Tuesday too. I couldn't take the risk with George in both games. That's why he started on the bench. He could have got injured again if he played both.
“I didn't have the left-back to play in the same way as I have in the past, which is why I have changed the system.”
Emmanuel Ledesma, who scored a lovely free-kick, has been operating down the left as a wing-back, but he struggled defensively against Millwall.
Karanka said: “I am happy with the way Ledesma has been because his attitude is fine. His answer when I asked him to play there was very good even if it is not his position. I like him a lot and he scored a goal. I like him in my squad and he knows that.”
Middlesbrough: Konstantopoulos; Varga, Woodgate, Omeruo, Friend; Leadbitter, Whitehead; Tomlin, Butterfield, Adomah; Graham.