FIRST, the good news. Saturday’s game at the Riverside proved Neil Warnock has assembled a balanced, well-drilled team that is more than capable of winning promotion to the Premier League. Now, the sting in the tail. That team is not Middlesbrough.

Having been relegated from the top-flight when he was manager of Cardiff City last season, Warnock spent last summer reshaping his squad for the Championship. Twelve of the 16 Bluebirds players that were involved in Saturday’s 3-1 win on Teesside were signed by Warnock, with four arriving in South Wales as part of last summer’s rebuild. Nine members of the starting side were involved in the current Boro boss’ final game in charge of Cardiff in November.

Neil Harris might have been the man in the Cardiff dug-out since then, but make no mistake about it, this is Warnock’s team, assembled with the sold purpose of grinding its way to promotion. And guess what, with one game of the season to go, it might just get there.

True, Cardiff need a point from their final game against Hull to guarantee a place in the play-offs, but if they make it, Saturday’s performance suggests they will be hard to beat no matter who they find themselves lining up against.

Strong and resolute in defence, with skipper Sean Morrison and his fellow centre-half Curtis Nelson, a summer signing from Oxford United, outstanding, the visitors to the Riverside also boasted pace and incision in attack with Josh Murphy, formerly of Newcastle United, and Lee Tomlin, once of Middlesbrough, outstanding.

This is not a side that is going to blow opponents away in the manner of a Leeds United or even a Brentford, who they could yet end up facing in a play-off semi-final. But when it comes to ticking the boxes needed to succeed in the Championship – pace, power, organisation, experience, squad depth – Warnock’s Cardiff are an exemplar of how to succeed on a relatively modest budget.

Middlesbrough? Let’s just say they’re some way short of being that at the moment. Were it not for the on and off-field inadequacies of those around them, they might well be spending this summer preparing for life in League One, but as it is, and not withstanding the effects of a dreadful home record that has seen them fail to record a single win at the Riverside since Boxing Day, it will need a remarkable series of events to see them relegated.

Nevertheless, as he ponders his future beyond Wednesday’s final game at Hillsborough, Warnock will be in no doubt as to just how radical a rebuilding job is required if Boro are to find themselves in the position Cardiff currently inhabit at the business end of next season. He already knew it anyway of course – how could he not after the home capitulations against QPR and Bristol City – but Saturday’s mismatch merely confirmed how bad things have become.

“The mental side of the players has got to be stronger,” conceded Warnock. “I don’t want to keep comparing teams like Cardiff with ourselves, but Cardiff wouldn’t have conceded the first goal in the way we did. Make no mistake about that. And I don’t think we would have scored a goal like Cardiff did for the first goal either. We’ve got to be better at both ends. The players have to be a little bit more clued up and streetwise.”

Or, alternatively, Warnock will have to bring in a new crop who are capable of doing what is required. There will surely be wholesale changes whoever is in charge this summer, with Saturday’s game likely to mark the end of a chapter for a number of players.

Some have already left of course, with Adam Clayton’s absence from the squad suggesting he is set to join Daniel Ayala and Ryan Shotton on the list of players that are being released. George Friend’s future remains unconfirmed, but the picture that became a social-media sensation on Saturday night, showing him sitting alone and bare-chested in the dug-out after the final whistle, reflecting on what might well have been his final game at the Riverside, suggests his time looks to be up too. It remains to be seen whether the same is true of Marvin Johnson, but the 29-year-old’s recent performances at left-back are unlikely to have strengthened his argument for a new deal.

Others will remain, but Warnock will need to work some of his magic to aid their development. Anfernee Dijksteel and Djed Spence boast an abundance of potential, but their defensive decision-making can be dreadful. You suspect Warnock will not tolerate too many of the mistakes that have peppered their recent performances if he remains in charge next term. The same will apply to Dael Fry.

Saturday’s defeat highlighted many of the deficiencies that have plagued Boro all season, with all three of Cardiff’s goal owing much to some dire defending. Johnson lost Morrison entirely as the Bluebirds opened the scoring from a corner in the fourth minute, and only Dijksteel will know what he was doing when he wandered from his position to afford Josh Murphy a clear run from the halfway line at the start of the second half. Half-an-hour later, and it was Spence that was badly out of position as Murphy claimed his second goal.

At the other end of the field, Britt Assombalonga’s demotion to the substitutes’ bench in the last two matches suggests he will either be sold this summer or play an increasingly peripheral role if he remains on Boro’s books, although the striker at least claimed his third goal in the last four games when he curled home an excellent free-kick with five minutes left.

That wasn’t the final act as Jonny Howson ensured Boro’s home campaign would end on a fittingly depressing note when he was dismissed in the 89th minute. Having already been booked for chopping down Murphy to prevent him breaking clear, Howson was issued with a deserved second yellow when he scythed into a thigh-high challenge on Will Vaulks. In truth, the tackle was so poor he might well have received a straight red that would have kept him out of the start of next season.

“I’ve told him how disappointed I am that he’s not going to be available for the game at Sheffield Wednesday,” said Warnock. “I didn’t think he put a foot wrong, but then he gets himself sent off for something as trivial and silly as that. Hopefully, that’s a lesson learned for next season.”

A lesson learned? As Warnock will surely conclude as he sifts through the wreckage of the last few weeks, it must not be the only one.