Middlesbrough manager Gareth Southgate has paid tribute to Gary O'Neil as he prepares for a crucial showdown with former club Portsmouth
If O'Neil and Pompey had had their way, the midfielder would have been lining up against Boro at the Riverside on Saturday.
But in January Southgate and his chairman Steve Gibson fought off a £4million bid, and the offer of Sean Davis for O'Neil who was booked in the first four games for Boro after the move fell through.
Now resigned to his fate in Middlesbrough's relegation fight, O'Neilhas been one of Southgate's most consistent performers since moving tothe right of midfield and he will have a key role to play if Boro areto get out of the bottom three.
Southgate said: 'O'Neil has been outstanding for the last few weeks.It's been well documented that Portsmouth wanted to take him back, andit might have been expected that we would accept their offer.
'But we have always said that we want to hang on to our bestplayers.
'We spoke to O'Neil and told him we would not be allowing himto leave.
'His response has been tremendous and the team has benefited as aresult. O'Neil did not deserve to be on the losing side at Everton
'He never stopped running and he nearly got us back into it with that terrific free kick near the end.'