Full-time: Middlesbrough 1 Millwall 2
A QUICK glance towards the Championship table will leave Middlesbrough fans, players and coaching staff wondering what might have been.
Middlesbrough are seven points from the play-off places with just three matches remaining and Aitor Karanka accepted his side's promotion chances were over following the end of a morale boosting four match winning streak.
Just when it seemed Middlesbrough could surprise the rest of the division and sneak in to the top six in the final few weeks of the campaign, they failed to deliver in typical fashion.
As has so often been the case this season – and during the other four seasons since dropping out of the Premier League in 2009 – Boro failed to perform when it really mattered.
Despite the extra confidence the recent run of victories had brought back to the squad, there was no sign of that during a first half in which a rejuvenated Millwall made Middlesbrough look like the team with the threat of relegation hanging over them.
Despite a speculative Danny Graham effort being turned on to the post by Millwall goalkeeper David Forde early on, it was at the other end of the pitch where the greatest chances were created.
Karanka, who defended his decision to start with the wing-back system which served him so well at Burnley a week earlier, must take partial blame for the way Millwall exploited the space down the flanks in the opening half an hour.
Wing-backs Albert Adomah, particularly, and Emmanuel Ledesma were often too far forward which allowed the likes of Lee Martin to cause problems and create both goals.
Martin's deliveries in the 16th and 30th minute were the source of both of Millwall's goals, perfectly executed by the head of 6ft 8in Austrian Stefan Maierhofer.
Middlesbrough's defence just could not come to terms with the 31-year-old, who had been without a club since leaving FC Koln last summer until he was signed by Ian Holloway on a free last month.
Experienced captain Jonathan Woodgate said: “We were very poor in the game and a shadow of our former ourselves in the last four games.
“It wasn't good enough. The fans showed they didn't like it and that's fair enough, I would have been the same had I been in there with the fans. I could have booed myself and I would have if I could.
“I have to come out to talk about it. I am not going to hide behind the changing room doors. When I speak, I speak with honesty. It was flat out there, I won't lie. This has flattened it after four wins in a row. We have to put it right in three days time against Reading.”
Even if Woodgate and the rest of the team “put it right” at the Madejski Stadium tomorrow, any chances of returning to the Premier League are dead now. Had they defeated Millwall, a second win at Reading could have put them within touching distance of the play-offs.
But it was not that simple. Like earlier in the season when Middlesbrough looked good enough to climb in to the top six after a run of good form either side of Christmas, performance levels dipped when hope was on the increase.
That was repeated when Millwall, who have now climbed out of the bottom three, arrived on Teesside, which has highlighted the need to address such failings over the summer.
Woodgate said: “Next season we will have to put that right, we will need to win games when we have not played too well if we want to be in serious contention. We chased shadows most of the game and it's difficult to say why.
“If I knew why there is so much inconsistency I would be a special manager wouldn't I? We weren't at the races, some days that can happen and I know that but it was still not good enough.
“We have to sort that out against teams fighting relegation like Millwall were. They wanted it more than us and that should not happen. It did.”
When the excellent Martin floated over the cross for Maierhofer's first header, the danger signs were there. Then he was allowed to send over a second to the back post for the former Bayern Munich front-man to nod down beyond Dimi Konstantopoulos.
The Middlesbrough goalkeeper went on to make numerous saves, the best of which arrived in the second half when he denied Steve Morison and Martyn Woolford.
Those were important because Middlesbrough had pulled one back by that stage, with Ledesma curling a free-kick from 20 yards over the wall and into Forde's top left corner when Graham had been fouled on the edge of the area.
But Middlesbrough's second defeat in ten matches still followed, even though there was marked improvement after Millwall's second goal when Karanka had scrapped his wing-back system in favour of a more orthodox back four.
Woodgate said: “It's now about the last few games and we want to play 100 per cent regardless of the situation we face.
“We will go to Reading, who are fighting for the play-offs, Millwall are fighting against relegation, then we have Barnsley, who are fighting relegation so we want to make it as hard as we can for all of our opponents. That's important.”