Overriding feeling of Middlesbrough's brighter future in final-day Watford victory

Alex Bangura is celebrating after scoring Middlesbrough's second goal
Alex Bangura is celebrating after scoring Middlesbrough's second goal -Credit:MI News/NurPhoto

It was hard not to think about the future with keen excitement as Middlesbrough closed their season with a 3-1 victory over Watford at the Riverside on Saturday.

A fine end to the season, it ensured Michael Carrick's side finished with a record of just one defeat in their last 12, resulting in a eighth place finish which in the end was only four points shy of making the play-offs. In the context of the season and all the challenges faced, that's not a bad finish at all.

But with no chance of finishing in the top six heading into the final game of the season, the game against Watford was more about the future - keeping high the excitement for next season. As Carrick summarised after, in that respect, it was a near-perfect day for Boro.

READ MORE: Michael Carrick's positive reflections on Middlesbrough's growth over the season

Law McCabe started the game. The 17-year-old has trained with the first-team for most of the season now and made cameo appearances here and there while regularly travelling to away games to aid his integration. Finally time to make that next step, he not only looked calm, assured and comfortable, it was clear in the way they sought to pick him out, his Boro team-mates trusted him - a key element for his long-term prospects.

In putting Boro 1-0 up, Emmanuel Latte Lath continued his fine form. He finishes the season on 18 goals overall after scoring 11 in his last 12 games. In discussing the striker's recent achievements, Carrick admits he believes Boro now have the goalscorer who can guide them to success next term - something they always believed he was capable of, despite his initial struggles with adapting and keeping himself fit. His form has been remarkable.

Alex Bangura's injuries have been even more frustrating than Latte Lath's, but the left-back came off the bench to score Boro's second goal in another positive cameo. If he can stay fit next season, there are real positive signs that he could be Boro's answer in such a key position. The delight of everyone for him in that moment was plain to see.

It was Isaiah Jones who rounded off the scoring after recently committing his long-term future to the club. That third goal saw Finn Azaz's impactful end to the season continue as he picked the defence-splitting pass to get Luke Ayling in behind. The Leeds loanee then provided his second assist of the game, and his eighth in 11 games for Boro.

Proving how much the club value experience blended with youth, both Ayling and Carrick spoke up the chances of that loan becoming a permanent move this summer, with the 32-year-old available on a free. That will prove a popular decision on Teesside judging by the reaction of supporters at the Riverside, as too was the news that Jonny Howson will be sticking around for another 12 months. He left the pitch to a rapturous reception and a chorus of 'One more year, Jonny Howson'.

There was even time for yet more youth though. On the same day soon-to-be 36-year-old Howson signed his latest contract, 17-year-old defender James Wilson signed his first pro contract. He came on for the four minutes of stoppage time, becoming the sixth academy player to debut this season.

Closing the season with a win, and all of the above context surrounding it, it really was almost perfect for Boro. It's been a challenging season overall, with many new signings to bed in and an unprecedented amount of injuries to contend with. But with many players now far more experienced, a group that will largely stay together this summer having shown the value of connections and wavelengths in their recent run, Boro feel like they end the season in a really good place, and with so many reasons to be optimistic about next season.