IT was a night that started with belief but ended in heartbreak, a season that opened so disappointingly before being sparked into life by Michael Carrick coming to a painful close 10 days earlier than Middlesbrough had hoped.

‘Deep in my heart, I do believe’, screamed a South Stand banner at the Riverside Stadium on Wednesday night. The hope – belief – was that Boro were Wembley bound, Premier League bound.

For so long this season since the October arrival of Carrick, Boro have looked a Premier League side in the waiting, swatting visiting teams aside at the Riverside with ease.

But, in the third meeting between these sides in nine days, stubborn Coventry City did what no team had previously managed to do since Carrick’s Teesside arrival – stopped Boro from scoring at the Riverside. And so, it was Gustavo Hamer’s strike three minutes before the hour mark that settled this edgy and tense second leg.

Only Burnley, before Coventry, had beaten Carrick’s Boro at the Riverside.

Burnley aside, Boro have been the Championship’s best team for much of the second half of the season. But they lost some of their rhythm in the final weeks of the campaign and the well-organised Sky Blues prevented the home side from returning to their free-flowing best. Mark Robins’ side did a job on Boro.

This has been a quite brilliant season and it’s the closest Boro have come to a Premier League return since departing the top flight in 2017. There are so many positives to build on and they undoubtedly have the right man in charge. Boro can refresh and come back stronger next season. But for now, there’s raw pain at a missed opportunity.

The Riverside crackled with anticipation on Wednesday night. Fan groups and club staff were at the stadium until late on Tuesday night in preparation. Flags were left on every seat and waved together in a powerful show of unity, “Oh Carrick said” belted out, a new twist on last season’s favourite.

In the build-up to the game, Darragh Lenihan told of his amazement at Boro’s “unbelievable” support this year and called on the supporters to play their part. Carrick said similar. The fans duly obliged.

And Boro responded early on. Marcus Forss, in for Isaiah Jones, had a shot after just 13 seconds. And it was Coventry who had kicked off. The Sky Blues had done a decent job of containing Ryan Giles in the first leg but after just four minutes he teased in a brilliant delivery that deserved a finishing touch.

Key for Boro was always going to be repeating their Sunday success in shackling Viktor Gyokeres, who hardly got a touch in the first leg. But the 21-goal Coventry dangerman was very nearly gifted an opener when a Tommy Smith back-pass was under-hit. Thankfully, Zack Steffen was aware and as quick as Richard Kilty out of his blocks to beat the striker to the loose ball.

Boro bossed the battle in the middle in the first leg which prompted Robins, who signed a new contract with the Sky Blues just hours before the game at the Riverside, to tweak his system and add an extra midfielder. It helped.

And so, unsurprisingly, it developed into a cagey, niggly affair. There were four first half yellow cards but the first effort on target didn’t come until the final second of the opening period, a Lenihan header easily saved.

Before then, openings had been hard to come by. Jamie Allen momentarily looked as though he was in on goal but Giles, Boro’s best in the first half, arrived in a flash to make a crucial interception. At the other end, Forss had a shot blocked.

It needed a moment, a hero.

And for Coventry, it should have been Jamie Allen. When Akpom was dispossessed on halfway, Boro looked to be in trouble. Gyokeres set Sheaf away down the left. He crossed for Allen, but with the goal gaping he miskicked his finish when it looked harder to miss.

Coventry looked the more likely, and the 2,000 away fans sensed as much. On 57 minutes, they were celebrating the opener.

Giles conceded possession with a sloppy pass just inside Boro’s half and the visitors took full advantage. Sheaf set Gyokeres away, who rounded Steffen but went wide and allowed Boro to get bodies back. It didn’t matter, Hamer picked up the loose ball and found the top corner with a sublime finish.

The Sky cameras cut to Aaron Ramsey in the stands, head in hands. How Carrick will have wished he had the Aston Villa loanee to call upon. He did have Jones to turn to, and the winger was immediately sent out to warm up.

Jones was introduced midway through the second half, alongside Barlaser and Dijksteel. The home side desperately needed a spark.

But they very nearly found themselves two behind when goalscorer Hamer came within inches of a second, his free-kick from 25 yards out rattling the crossbar.

Boro tried to move through the gears and created their best chance since the goal when a McGree shot was blocked inside the box after a Giles free-kick was only half cleared.

Matt Crooks was sent on in the hope he’d find another big moment. Moments later Archer had the ball in the net, but the flag went up. Eight minutes of added time offered hope, but it ended in heartbreak.