Fifteen games into the season, Rotherham United have played every team in the top half of the table bar one.
Five matches into his reign, Neil Redfearn’s list of opponents contains four sides who are serious play-off contenders and another, Brentford, with four victories on the trot before tonight’s round of fixtures.
It hasn’t been the easiest of starts to their Championship campaign for the Millers and it hasn’t been the simplest of baptisms either for their new manager.
Hull City are the only pace-setters they have yet to encounter, and defeat against another top-four side, Middlesbrough, keeps Rotherham in bottom spot.
There was a worrying lack of attacking thrust from Redfearn’s men, and the last thing they needed was to gift the home side a goal.
But midfielder Grant Ward, under no pressure, passed backwards in the 16th minute straight into the path of Boro’s former England winger, Stewart Downing, who showed international-class pace and poise to run on and bury his shot past Lee Camp.
Two minutes later it could have been game almost over but Carlos de Pena saw his header bounce back off the bar.
The Millers’ big chance came in the 81st minute when substitute Jordan Bowery seized on a slip by George Friend and bore down on goal. He sliced his effort wide of the near post when the best option would have been to shoot across goal where Tony Andreu was waiting unmarked.
Rotherham went with two up front in Jonson Clarke-Harris and Danny Ward, but neither man could make an impression on one of the division’s best defences and the visitors, Bowery’s moment apart, never looked like scoring.
Boro knocked off in the second half to such an extent they were booed at times by their own fans, yet when Rotherham did attack they were let down by a poor pass, a poor touch or their inability to hold up the ball.
The fact that Clarke-Harris and Danny Ward were replaced within 10 minutes of each other showed what Redfearn thought of his side’s potency in the opposition half.
Late on, the home side stirred and a superb Lee Camp save was required to deny Friend, while sub Diego Fabbrini and Downing both fired over when they looked likely to score.
The Millers weren’t as bad as they had been at Derby, but Boro didn’t play as well as the Rams.
Games like this, and the one at the iPro Stadium last Saturday, won’t determine whether Rotherham stay up this season.
They will seal their fate against sides closer to them in the table, and, thankfully, their run of fixtures now looks to be easing after such a torrid opening spell.
Redfearn had made five changes to his starting 11, bringing in Frazer Richardson, Paul Green, Farrend Rawson, Tom Thorpe and Tony Andreu, with Lewis Buxton, Kirk Broadfoot, Joe Newell and Richard Smallwood dropping to the bench and Joe Mattock missing out altogether.
Ward was at fault again in the 37th minute when a weak flick and even weaker attempt at a tackle let in George Friend for a cross which deserved better than Albert Adomah’s wild blast over the bar.
Rotherham’s only first-half attempt on target was a Green shot straight at keeper Dimi in the 45th minutes.
There are trialists training with the club and loan signings in the pipeline as Redfearn does his utmost to strengthen his squad, with a new striker one of his most pressing priorities
Boro were only one win away from reaching the Premier League last season, beaten in the play-off final at Wembley by Norwich City.
A place at the top table remains Millers chairman Tony Stewart’s ultimate ambition but, for now, that remains a distant dream.
Redfearn has been brought in on a long-term mission, to develop young players, to change and stabilise the club’s playing approach, to establish them in the upper echelons of the second tier.
Short term, preventing the Millers leaving the division through the wrong door is his great challenge.
Middlesbrough (4-4-1-1): Dimi; Nsue, Kalas, Amorebieta, Friend; Adomah, Leadbitter (Fabbrini 79), Clayton, Downing; de Pena (Zuculini 65); Nugent. Subs not used: Mejias, Ayala, Gibson, Stephens, Kike.
Rotherham (4-4-2): Camp; Richardson, Rawson, Collins, Toffolo; G Ward, Thorpe, Andreu (Maguire 86), Green; Clarke-Harris (Newell 63), D Ward (Bowery 73). Subs not used: Collin, Broadfoot, Buxton, Smallwood.
Referee: Paul Tierney (Lancashire).
Attendance: 21,144 (271).