Revealed: The FIVE Middlesbrough youngsters in-line for a first team call-up
Never mind the old saying “you can’t win anything with kids”, the question is will Middlesbrough boss Jonathan Woodgate turn to more of his youngsters in his time of need?
Although Boro are back hovering just a single place and point above the Championship relegation zone, major spending in January seems unlikely.
So what price Woodgate pitching in one of the kids he has recently promoted to the Boro bench?
Here, we take a look at the youngsters closest to being thrown in at the deep end, and ask whether they might sink or swim.
Having come off the bench for his Championship debut at Leeds on Saturday, Liddle is arguably the closest among Boro’s untried youngsters to being heavily involved in the relegation battle.
Like goalkeeper Aynsley Pears, midfielder Liddle, 21, has Boro in his blood, with his dad Craig having played at Ayresome Park and the Riverside Stadium for four years under Bryan Robson.
The impact of a loan spell – including two League Two appearances - at Forest Green last season has been obvious as Liddle has been in superb form for Boro’s U23s this term, scoring six goals in seven games.
And considering midfielders have contributed just five of Boro’s Championship goals this season, Liddle’s record may soon see him given the nod by Woodgate.
Having broken into Boro’s U18 squad at 15, Redcar-born midfielder Hackney showed his ability to time his runs into attacking areas by scoring a fine headed winner against Burton in the Checkatrade Trophy last season.
Seven assists for the U18s in 2018-19 also helped Hackney win promotion to Boro’s U23s, where he has made 10 starts this season.
His form was good enough to see him promoted to the first-team bench for last week’s home win over Barnsley.
And Hackney has the physicality to suggest a step up to senior level is not beyond him.
Although also only 17, record-breaker Wood has long been earmarked as a future Championship player, having made four appearances in the EFL Cup.
The first of those – against Notts County – saw Wood become Boro’s youngest-ever player, aged just 16 years and 75 days.
A hugely talented and athletic centre-back, Wood – son of former Boro defender Dean Gordon – only joined Boro’s academy at U13 level from local side Stockton Town.
But while he has been on the bench for five league matches this season, including the defeat at Leeds United on Saturday, it might require an even more serious spate of defensive injuries for Woodgate to risk him in the Championship.
O’Neill also made his Championship debut off the bench late on at Leeds, and is a raw but intriguing talent for a manager solely reliant on two strikers for goals.
With seven goals in 17 appearances on loan in the rough and tumble of National League North with Darlington this season, O’Neill – just 17 – has reminded Woodgate he has the physical potential to cope with senior football.
That came after the tall and rangy striker’s loan spell at Hartlepool United last season, where he scored in an FA Cup third round replay against Gillingham.
Whether it is if Assombalonga or Fletcher get injured, or as an impact sub, O’Neill is clearly seen by Woodgate as a genuine option.
With Marc Bola new to the Championship and Hayden Coulson also lacking experience, Reading has moved into the first-team picture as an option for Woodgate at left-back.
But it is his leadership traits as much as his technical qualities which suggests the Scotland U21 international could be trusted in the pressure cooker of a relegation battle.
Reading has captained Boro’s U23s regularly, and shown his versatility by playing at centre-back and on the left of midfield at times.
A potential January loan move has been shelved as Boro ponder whether to test those leadership skills and versatility under pressure.