When Middlesbrough and West Bromwich Albion suffered relegation from the Premier League in May, it did not take long for both clubs to be installed as leading contenders to bounce back from the Championship at the first attempt. But it has taken just eight matches of the new season to separate the men from the boys. Roberto Di Matteo's side proved at the Riverside that they are in a different league to their opponents.
The gap between first and third may now be just four points but Middlesbrough – for the first time this season – looked like a team going through the rebuilding process having sold almost £30m worth of talent.
Only four players of the starting line-up that last lost 5-0 on home soil – last October – fell victim to a similar battering on Saturday. The difference this time was that it was not Chelsea tearing Gareth Southgate's side apart, it was West Brom.
There might have been a tenuous link, in that it was Di Matteo – the former midfielder who helped Chelsea to FA Cup and League Cup glory over Boro in 1997 – leading Albion to such heroics. The reality, however, is that this was not Premier League title hopefuls they were up against, just an organised and fluid team.
Middlesbrough and West Brom finished level on points last season and things have changed at both clubs since. But where Stewart Downing, Tuncay Sanli and Robert Huth have had to leave to cut costs at the Riverside, the only major change at The Hawthorns looks to have been a seamless managerial one.
"I have to be careful when I say we will learn from this defeat because lots of people will say we should have learned by now," said Southgate, who has always been given unequivocal backing from chairman Steve Gibson and he can expect that to continue.
"The first few games in this division have all been an upward curve and they have been hit by a sledgehammer. It will be interesting to see how everyone responds. It is always a difficult experience losing at home but that was annihilation."
For the 21,000 or so Middlesbrough supporters that turned up, watching two goals from Boro academy graduate Chris Brunt – the second a terrific 50-yard lob to put West Brom in the driving seat inside 31 minutes – was difficult to accept.
Even the most disgruntled home fans must not have envisaged the capitulation that was to follow, though. There was light relief for almost 40 minutes after Youssuf Mulumbu headed in a third just before half-time. But Roman Bednar's third of the season from 20 yards and a cool finish from winger Jerome Thomas wrapped things up in the final eight minutes.
Middlesbrough will be forced to regroup, while West Brom's unbeaten start continues. Di Matteo, however, still struggles to raise a smile. "I don't think I should get too excited yet," said the Italian after overseeing the Baggies' biggest away win since May 1977. "We've only played eight games and there's another 38 to go. That's 114 points to play for.
"We want to be there at the end of the season. Being there now is less important. Believe it or not, I'm really happy. Don't I look it? If that doesn't come across after a result like that, what is wrong? I don't get excited very easily, but I am very excited about the team."
If Di Matteo seemed subdued, that was nothing compared to Southgate, who gagged his players from speaking after such an anaemic display. He could, though, do little to prevent Brunt describing his delight. "It was a dream performance. It couldn't have gone any better for us," said Brunt, who left for Sheffield Wednesday in 2004 before moving to Albion for £3m three years later. "I can't thank Middlesbrough enough for my development. If I hadn't been at Middlesbrough I wouldn't have been the player I am."
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Coyne; McMahon, St Ledger, Wheater, Grounds; Yeates, Arca (Digard, 58), Williams, Johnson; Emnes (Lita, 67), Aliadière (Folan, 32). Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Hoyte, Hines, Bennett.
West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Carson; Zuiverloon, Olsson, Martis, Mattock (Barnett, 74); Brunt (Wood, 82), Dorrans, Mulumbu, Thomas; Moore (Koren, 64), Bednar. Substitutes not used: Kiely (gk), Reid, Teixeira, Cox.
Referee: T Kettle (Berkshire).
Booked: Middlesbrough Williams, Arca; West Bromwich Albion Mattock, Olsson, Martis, Dorrans, Thomas.
Man of the match: Dorrans
Attendance: 22,725Reuse content