FOR almost half-an-hour, the dream was alive. Middlesbrough were winning with a fair bit to spare, Derby County had been pegged back by West Brom, and plans were being hatched for a play-off semi-final this weekend.

Ultimately, though, it was not meant to be. While Boro kept their side of the final-day equation, just about holding on for a 2-1 win at Rotherham, two Derby goals in the space of three second-half minutes scuppered their hopes of finishing in the top six. In truth, they got what they deserved.

This has been a far from vintage campaign on Teesside, and while missing out on a play-off position by a solitary point might be viewed as unfortunate, it is nevertheless a fair reflection of where Middlesbrough find themselves. Good enough to outperform the Championship’s also-rans, but lacking the quality and consistency that is required to finish above the best teams in the division.

You cannot lose six successive matches at a critical stage of the season and expect to win promotion, and ultimately, Boro’s implosion in March and early April left them with too much to do in the finishing straight. They have won five of their last six games, but that has proved insufficient to make up the ground that was lost.

Today’s win, which came courtesy of first-half goals from Britt Assombalonga and John Obi Mikel, was ultimately an irrelevance, and the most significant scenes might well have come at the final whistle, when Boro’s fate had been sealed.

Stewart Downing waved wistfully to the travelling fans, having made what will almost certainly prove to have been his final appearance for his hometown club. Jordan Hugill, an unused substitute, was another Teessider saying goodbye as he prepares to return to West Ham.

Darren Randolph will be a wanted man given the quality of his performances this season, and with a need to further cut costs in the absence of any more parachute payments, the Irishman’s gift of his gloves to a young fan could be his final act in a Boro shirt. Mikel, another player who made a point of heading to the travelling support, will also be off, along with Mo Besic, who only returned on loan when he re-joined at the start of the season.

By the time the action resumes in August, the Middlesbrough squad will have a significantly different look. Time will tell whether there is also a new manager overseeing the rebuild.

The post-mortem into the failings of the current campaign will drag on into the summer, but the immediate questions will focus on Pulis’ position as manager given that he has consistently refused to commit himself beyond the end of his contract, which is due to expire next month.

Pulis’ relationship with a large section of the Middlesbrough support appears to have eroded beyond the point of repair, and while it would be unfair to pin all of this season’s problems on the 61-year-old, a parting of the ways would surely be in the best interests of all involved.

Pulis’ conservative tactics have gradually worn down the Riverside faithful, and while he can justifiably point to the financial straitjacket that has constrained his transfer activities as mitigation for missing out on the play-offs, the fact that Norwich City and Sheffield United have won automatic promotion with playing budgets that are significantly less than Middlesbrough’s undermines his argument.

The playing squad is also in need of an overhaul, and even if there was not a need to cut costs further with the post-Premier League parachute payments having run out, Boro would surely have benefited from a summer squad restructure anyway.

The likes of Downing, George Friend, Daniel Ayala and Adam Clayton have been stalwarts for a number of years now, but perhaps their time has been and gone. Britt Assombalonga’s wages make him an attacking luxury that Boro can no longer afford, while at the other end of the scale, Dael Fry and Lewis Wing are sure to have attracted admiring glances from a number of quarters this season. Having sold Ben Gibson and Adama Traore after missing out on promotion last term, this could well prove to be another transformative summer transfer window.   

In terms of today’s game, Boro’s task at kick-off was simple. A win was essential, and to the Teessiders’ credit, it was effectively wrapped up by half-time.

There was the usual catalogue of misses that have plagued Boro all season, but for once, with the inadequacies that have resulted in Rotherham’s relegation all too apparent in the home ranks, Pulis’ side created sufficient opportunities for a litany of misses not to matter.

So while Assombalonga dragged two horrible efforts wide of the target before the interval, his profligacy went unpunished when he finally honed his shooting radar from the penalty spot shortly before the half-hour mark.

Ashley Fletcher’s clever cushioned pass enabled Assombalonga to spin into space, and his run was halted illegally when Clark Robertson tugged him to the ground. Having dusted himself down, Assombalonga stroked his spot-kick into the corner to claim his fourth goal in the last five matches.

Fletcher and Ryan Shotton also spurned fine chances before Assombalonga scored – the latter was especially wasteful as he failed to find the target with a free header despite being just eight yards out – but Rotherham’s limitations meant they were unable to seriously test Randolph in the Boro goal.

Michael Smith skewed a shot horribly wide after Matt Crooks cut the ball back from the byline midway through the opening period, but the hosts looked like a side counting down the minutes to their summer break, and the game was effectively settled when Boro doubled their lead eight minutes before the interval.

The goal was hardly a surprise given the extent of the visitors’ dominance, but the identity of the scorer was rather more of a shock, with Mikel breaking his Boro duck at the 19th time of asking.

Paddy McNair’s header from Wing’s corner was blocked, but Mikel swooped on the loose ball on the edge of the box to lash a ferocious strike into the roof of the net.

The second half was something of a non-event, with the biggest dramas taking place at Derby’s IPro Stadium.

Rotherham claimed a consolation with four minutes left, with Michael Smith scoring from the penalty spot after Mikel had been penalised for clipping the heels of Kyle Vassell, but by that stage, Boro were already aware of their fate.

The 2,608-strong travelling support had reacted ecstatically when news filtered through of West Brom’s equaliser at the start of the second half, but reality bit when Derby hit back with two goals in the space of three minutes to settle things.

The Rams are looking forward to a play-off semi-final against Leeds United; Boro are reflecting on what might have been. So close, but ultimately so far. The season is over, but the fallout will go on for a little while yet.