This was a peculiar afternoon on Teesside. Middlesbrough bade farewell to the Premier League with a defeat and a performance that for the first hour was borderline funereal, yet that was close to overshadowed by the atmospherics of the occasion.
With Boro fans mocking their team at 2-0 down, then (some of them) calling out the name of departed Aitor Karanka, the manager who has engineered this season of five wins and relegation, Southampton were awarded a penalty for a Brad Guzan lunge at Shane Long.
Guzan must have feared red; he wasn’t even booked. Long stepped up and saw his shot rise into the crowd off the crossbar.
Had the score gone to 0-3, things might have turned ugly. Instead Boro found something and via Patrick Bamford’s first goal for over two years, made the last 25 minutes into a bit of a contest.
A 2-1 home defeat looks rather more respectable and Karanka’s stand-in replacement, Steve Agnew, was able to speak of “commitment and a spirit” while acknowledging the first half was “a test of character” as Middlesbrough offered "no threat". A five-man midfield with Bamford on the right contributed to that.
Agnew’s boss, Boro chairman Steve Gibson, then made a rare appearance on BBC Tees radio to say of the season: “It’s disappointing, heart-breaking really.
“The season has been very tough. But the fact we have not achieved our objective of staying in the league tells you that we’ve made mistakes.”
Unlike some of the displays Boro have put on, Gibson is going down fighting. Of next season in the Championship, he said: “We’ve got a great opportunity in terms of resource. The club is well run and we are in a good stable financial position. We should have more resource going into next season than any other club. There can be no other objective – we want to smash the league next year. We want to go up next year as champions.”
Whether Agnew will be in charge for that remains unclear.
“I’ve got thoughts but I’ll keep them to myself,” Gibson said of the manager’s position.
Considering they have reached a League Cup final and are now level on points with West Brom – what Middlesbrough would give for that – Southampton manager Claude Puel is under local scrutiny too. Five games without a win, and the three without a goal, had ramped that up.
Here was a reply to that, via an experimental team with two full debutants in the back four Martin Caceres and Anthony Pied. The travelling Southampton fans – over 1300 of them – saw this new XI cruise.
After 42 minutes Jay Rodriguez scored his first since January and 12 minutes after the interval Nathan Redmond struck the second.
At that stage, this was not a good advert for Agnew. The first half was stunning in its dullness. The notion that the ‘shackles’ were off two teams with no more to play for in the season died minute by silent minute.
As Boro’s five-man midfield indulged a favourite past-time, the backward pass, Southampton’s went through the motions of closing down space. Doing these basics meant ensuring that if a Boro player did find some attacking inspiration, it would be snuffed out. The visitors need not have worried.
The half ended with Middlesbrough having failed to record a shot on target or win a corner, never mind score a goal. When Fraser Forster watched an Adam Forshaw drive slide by in first-half injury-time there were ironic cheers from those home fans still interested.
Southampton had gone ahead shortly before. It was a three-touch goal that demonstrated the ability within the visitors, but also the room they were given by a Middlesbrough defence that might not be quite as robust as some claim.
Certainly it was not when Jordy Clasie slid a thirty-yard pass down the Southampton right, exposing the ground behind Boro left-back George Friend.
Long was rushing onto it as Ben Gibson raced across to cover. Long did not even take a touch, he simply struck a crisp, diagonal cross to the penalty-spot where Rodriguez met it first-time – a fine finish.
On the half-time whistle Boro were booed off. Two minutes into the second half, they at last forced a corner. Forster caught it.
A sliced effort from Bamford followed – that came from an Alvaro Negredo knockdown in what is likely to have been his Teesside goodbye.
But then the Saints swept upfield and a clever Rodriguez pass picked out Redmond. Introduced at the interval, Redmond had already shown some purpose. Here he cut in from the left, stepped inside Fabio - who went to the turf needlessly – and bent a curler into the far top corner.
It was all too easy. When Long raced away from the Boro defence and was brought down by Guzan, it was a clear penalty. Long missed.
Two substitutes, Grant Leadbitter and Victor Fischer, at last brought some animation to the home team and it was from a Fischer corner on 73 minutes that Bamford headed in from six yards.
There was a late save for Forster from Chambers, but ultimately Boro’s last home game was like their season – flat and strange.
Middlesbrough (4-5-1): Guzan; Fabio, Chambers, Gibson, Friend; Bamford, De Roon, Clayton, Forshaw (Leadbitter 60) Downing (Fischer 60); Negredo
Subs not used: Konstantopoulos, Bernardo, Fischer, Barragan, Stuani, Traore
Southampton (4-1-4-1): Forster; Pied, Yoshida, Caceres, Bertrand; Romeu; Long (Austin 87) Clasie, Hojbjerg (Davis 74) Boufal (Redmond h-t); Rodriguez
Subs not used: Hassen, Ward-Prowse, Stephens, Targett
Referee: A. TaylorReuse content