Middlesbrough: Villa and West Ham raid proves promotion potential

Middlesbrough remain available to back at [4.1] to gain promotion from the Championship despite widespread reports that they are close to confirming two high-profile Premier League signings.

Though a handful of top-flight performers drop down to the second tier every summer, Boro aren’t looking at benchwarmers from clubs that barely survived, they are targeting players who wouldn’t be out of place in any bottom-half Premier League team’s starting line-up.

The deal that is on the brink of completion is for Shay Given, who enjoyed a stellar 2014/15 in which he first cancelled his Republic of Ireland retirement to re-emerge as international first choice, and then displaced Brad Guzan in the Aston Villa side following Tim Sherwood’s appointment.

Best of all, he went from watching mundane Premier League games from the bench under Paul Lambert to playing every minute of Villa’s run to the FA Cup final, which unfortunately for the veteran ended badly to keep his trophy cabinet undeservedly bare.

Given has helped guide a north-east force out of the Championship before though during a clean-sheet-littered loan spell at Sunderland in 1995/96 and ingratiated himself to Middlesbrough fans and staff alike with a supreme short-term stint (again laden with clean sheets) there in 2013/14.

Boro climbed six places in that three-month period. Having finished fourth last season, the Irish great needs to drag them up just two positions in nine months to deliver automatic promotion.

The second headline purchase that they are pursuing would be even more eye-catching, with the Betfair Sportsbook pricing up a Stewart Downing return to Teesside at 1/5.

The 30-year-old hometown hero cost West Ham £5 million in 2013 and supplied more key passes per Premier League appearance than any other Englishman in 2014/15, with Mesut Ozil, David Silva, Cesc Fabregas and Eden Hazard the only men in the entire division to outdo him.

He was rewarded for his electric start to the campaign with an England recall, starting against Scotland eight months ago but, after cooling off in the closing months (like most of his colleagues in fairness), the Irons are seemingly happy to sell to fund arrivals for new boss Slaven Bilic.

Sunderland (3/1) and Newcastle (16/1) have both been linked with Downing, yet the winger is believed to be so enthusiastic about the prospect of a reunion with his first employers that he is willing to walk away from the Premier League. No doubt he expects to be back within a year.