And so it all comes crashing down. Not on the crisp turf of Wembley, as perhaps seemed the stronger possibility, but at fortress Riverside.

It seemed like a statistical improbability. Not only had we not failed to score in a single game there in Michael Carrick’s tenure as Middlesbrough manager, but Coventry have never won there. They have to go back to 1993 to just recall a win in Teesside, a time when the memories of their famous 1987 Wembley victory were fresher and the toils of relegations and stadium jeopardies far away.

The soothsayers will tell you that the signs were there in our declining performances against Luton, Rotherham and Coventry. Akpom’s goal-scoring flurry had dried up, Howson’s midfield powerhousing was missed and the at-times flawless attacking pistons were not firing. There is perhaps some truth in it.

Carrick did not make a mistake in approaching these final games of the league season differently. Rest and rotation was the right strategy. Otherwise, our campaign may have petered out in a fashion similar to Sunderland’s collapse on Tuesday: legless and listless, overcome by injuries and energy. Instead, there was just a sense that we had passed the peak of our powers.

For a magical period in the middle part of this season, the stars were truly aligned. Chuba was knocking down records with ease. Ramsey, Forss and Archer were providing edge to our attacking mights. And Hayden Hackney was asserting himself as one of our leading players, making the jump from development fringe to accomplished first-team with remarkable comfort.

The disappointment in our defeat comes less from the insufferable weight of expectation but more the feeling that a golden period of opportunity has inevitably passed. Things won’t be the same again. Unlike after the Wembley devastation of 2015, it is not a case of greasing the wheels and tinkering at the edges. The bedrock of this marvellous side is now going to be rocked and that is a fact to be faced up to.

First and foremost, we are set for an exodus of loan players. Most Championship sides face this, but replacing Ryan Giles, Zack Steffen and Cameron Archer like-for-like will be difficult if not impossible.

Beneath this immediate priority comes further question marks. Can Chuba find the firepower on the same scale again next year? Will he work to the same success with a new forward partner? Or could he even be off to pastures new? And will Jonny Howson continue to play a central role in this Boro team despite his advancing years?

We cannot kid ourselves that this has not been a team with clear deficiencies either. We may have to look at alternatives to Isaiah Jones or Anfernee Dijksteel, and what happens at centre-half is far from certain.

After our last play-off tilt in 2018, we experienced a summer of sales. A financial necessity perhaps, in ways different to the situation we now face, but the holes that the departures of Patrick Bamford, Ben Gibson and Adama Traoré left were not adequately redressed. We ended up finishing outside of the top 6 despite spending most of the season inside it.

A few people have been keen to draw parallels with Sheffield United, who barring a minor wobble have found themselves race to automatic promotion after finishing fifth last year. My concern is that this was without the large-scale departures we look set to suffer. Sheffield United were a good team now made excellent by the fruition of top players like Iliman Ndiaye and Oli McBurnie and the always important loan signings.

There is one big cause for optimism however, to make us believe that we could come close to replicating the Blades’s path to the Premier League. Our recruitment this season was excellent and far exceeded anything we have achieved in some time. One part of that crucial star alignment which may not be troubled is that which revolves around Kieran Scott and his transfer strategy. This season could have been dead and buried much earlier were it not for the January arrivals of Ramsey, Archer and Barlaser. If targets can be both sourced and delivered, we will not begin our league campaign in August with undue concern.

As the lights come down on an enjoyable campaign, and the Carrickball of the Riverside is traded for Arctic Monkeys and co, there is much left to ponder and do. The expectations will be higher, both from fans and manager alike. But if it pays off, we can hopefully expect another season of success, albeit one with a slightly different look.

Thomas Bartley