Middlesbrough face summer transfer dilemma after Paddy McNair contract decision

Paddy McNair has announced he will leave Middlesbrough this summer and that creates an interesting transfer dilemma for the club.

Before that though, it only seems fair to offer a word on McNair - who leaves Boro after six years at the club and having made 219 appearances. While his departure always seemed likely this summer as his contract ran down, that didn't stop McNair throughout the season stepping up when needed and always proving reliable and solid.

The Player of the Year in 2020-21 under Neil Warnock, McNair has always been a hard-working and dependable player since his 2018 move from Sunderland. Whether it was midfield, full-back or centre-back, he gave his all for the club and leaves with the best wishes of everyone.

READ MORE: Paddy McNair confirms Middlesbrough exit after six years in social media 'thank you' post

Football quickly moves on, however, and for Boro, plans are well in place for plotting their incoming business this summer. The aim is clear - they wish to add to the solid foundations that have been laid this season in order to strengthen Michael Carrick's options for a promotion push next season.

On the back of McNair's departure, centre-back becomes an interesting dilemma. Even without McNair, and assuming they keep hold of Rav van den Berg this summer, they still have the desired depth of four centre-backs (two per position), with Dael Fry, Matt Clarke and then Darragh Lenihan returning too.

Going back to around February time, however, there was talk of Boro looking closely at centre-backs ahead of the summer transfer window. At that stage, it was understood to be a position that Boro were looking closely at - with the feeling that it was because they would be looking to move Matt Clarke on.

While Clarke had done brilliant to get himself back fit after his injury nightmare, there was uncertainty at that time over his suitability to playing Carrick's desired style. It's fair to say that, in the intervening period, Clarke has smashed such doubts to pieces with a run of form that put him in the running to win the club's Player of the Year award.

With an option in the club's favour to extend Clarke's contract by an extra 12 months to take it up to 2026, it feels highly unlikely now that Clarke leaves the club this summer. He shouldn't either, because he's proven how valuable he can be.

That could mean Boro shelve plans to sign a centre-back this summer altogether - something that could be welcomed with clear priorities elsewhere in the team. Whether Lewis O'Brien or otherwise, they will need another centre midfielder this summer. They'll need at least one more forward too, while another striker remains on their wishlist.

One thing Boro have learned this season, however, is the value of options. Fry has had a couple of seasons now of struggling to stay injury-free, while Lenihan will be returning from a long-term injury with similar uncertainties to those surrounding Clarke at the start of this year. Can he get back to his previous levels so easily?

With that in mind, if the budget would allow, a fifth centre-back might be valuable for Boro - with no sign of any of the academy players being ready to step up in the same kind of way that Law McCabe looks capable of doing in midfield. Perhaps, with the balance of the squad and morale in mind, a young centre-back aiming to come to Boro and develop, could be the answer.

There were high hopes for Jack Hannah last summer but he didn't quite manage to push on this year and is 21 now. James Wilson made his debut on Saturday but is only 17 and still developing physically and therefore feels unlikely to be ready for more exposure quite yet. Therefore, if the budget stretches, the answer for Boro might be found elsewhere.

It's something that we might also see at right-back this summer too, with Luke Ayling looking likely to sign a permanent contract and remain at the club after a successful loan spell. Assuming Anfernee Dijksteel leaves, that would leave Boro with two 32-year-old options as Tommy Smith returns. It's solid for next season, but carries little protection moving beyond that.

With a desire to have a focus on the future, signing a young right-back and centre-back this summer to be on the fringes of the first team - learning the club's ways, developing through training and playing here and there - could be perfect to bedding them in gradually before they become more prominent down the line. It would be comparable to what has ultimately happened with Alex Gilbert this season.

Ultimately though, even though they unfortunately lose an experienced Championship campaigner on a free transfer, Boro look well-placed to deal with McNair's exit. Whether it's through needing to do nothing, pushing ahead with a target by allowing one of their other defenders to leave, or thinking to the future with a younger signing, Boro have options and feel in control of which one they decide to take.