Middlesbrough have been a relegated team in all but name for most of this year but finally, like some long-lame horse stumbling around the paddock, they were put out of their misery yesterday. As their manager Gareth Southgate put it: "This has been looming." Not that he was contemplating doing a Ricky Sbragia, a fellow citizen of the North-east, and resigning like the now ex-Sunderland manager. "I would like to stay on here," he added.
To survive the drop required a combination of three results going in their favour, plus a hefty dollop of goal difference. The first result they needed was to beat West Ham and that hardly looked likely even before they went a goal down with just more than half-an-hour played, after Carlton Cole's strike from 12 yards. "It wasn't about today," Southgate added.
Defeat away from home has become a part of life for the Teessiders – they had not won on their travels since early November, against Aston Villa – and something else they will have to get used to now is life in the Championship.
It has been 11 years since Boro were outside the top flight and in their time in the Premier League they won the League Cup, in 2004, and reached the final of the Uefa Cup as recently as three years ago. That was all under their previous manager, Steve McClaren, now working in Holland. His thoughts on the club's demise would be interesting to hear. But Southgate admitted this has been coming. He said: "The last five years we've flirted with relegation but we've had to reduce everything each year. It's been a more delicate situation each year."
The descent has been gradual but their challenge now is whether they can emerge with body and soul intact – let alone Southgate still as manager – and mount a challenge to make a return to the elite. Southgate said he would talk to chairman Steve Gibson this week about plans for next year.
At least they will still have a decent derby in the North-east. Scunthorpe's promotion to the Championship yesterday via the play-off final could have meant that was as close as Middlesbrough would get to some local competition. Newcastle's demotion, however, should see the Riverside get a decent crowd at least once next season. In the meantime, appetising trips to Doncaster and Swansea City await.
Boro's cause in London, when they needed goals, was not helped by the absence of Stewart Downing and Jérémie Aliadière, both injured, while they were also without Afonso Alves although some of the surprisingly quiet travelling support might have said that was a blessing in disguise.
Alves is typical of the under-performing, high-earner on a relegated team's books that drags them further down rather than inspires them back up, and the injured Brazil forward is likely to be one among many offered to clubs in the summer as Southgate – or any successor – reshapes the squad.
Middlesbrough needed Newcastle and Hull both to lose, which happened, although Boro also had to see a five-goal swing in goal difference between them and Hull. Once Cole's goal, from Herita Ilunga's pass, beat Brad Jones, salvation became even more unlikely.
West Ham, with nothing to play for, then switched off, and the visitors finally gave themselves a glimmer of hope. Tuncay Sanli – Boro's only player of any merit yesterday – slipped a pass to Gary O'Neil, who beat Rob Green. However, mission improbable became mission impossible when Jones allowed Junior Stanislas' 22-yard shot to roll under his arms. All in all, it summed up Boro's season.
West Ham (4-1-4-1): Green; Spector, Neill, Upson, Ilunga; Kovac; Boa Morte, Collison (Di Michele, 72), Noble (Dyer, 54), Stanislas; Cole (Tristan, 64). Substitutes not used: Lastuvka (gk), Lopez, Savio, Payne.
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Jones; McMahon (Bennett, h/t), Huth, Wheater, Hoyte; O'Neil, Bates, Arca (Walker, h/t), Johnson; Sanli, Emnes (Franks, 81). Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Shawky, Williams, Grounds.
Referee: H Webb (Yorkshire).
Booked: Middlesbrough O'Neil.
Man of the Match: Tuncay