TONY MOWBRAY has challenged his players to bring the good times back to the Riverside Stadium as Middlesbrough prepare to play in front of the biggest home crowd of the year tonight.

More than 20,000 tickets have been sold for tonight's visit of Sheffield Wednesday after thousands of stay-away supporters took advantage of cut-price admission prices.

It is widely expected there could be in excess of 25,000 fans watching when Boro look to secure the victory which will see them climb above Crystal Palace at the top of the Championship.

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Such a position and outcome would be the ideal way to show to supporters that Mowbray's men mean business in the promotion race.

And, while expecting attendance figures to drop when ticket prices return to normal, the Middlesbrough manager fully intends to have a team to bring supporters back to the Riverside on a regular basis.

The Boro boss, whose two-year reign has coincided with all-time attendance lows, said: "It's an ambition of mine to get the stadium full again and being in the Premier League is probably the only thing that can guarantee that again on a regular basis.

"I never got used to the empty spaces. I get disappointed every Saturday at the empty seats across from me. When I was at West Brom, we had a full stadium and the atmosphere was amazing. The stadium was bouncing. That's what we want to get to and the people of Teesside are passionate about their football.

"When people look at the table and see where we are then they can catch the football bug again. That is what fans are like. They like to be successful. They know the feeling of being in a crowd that is buzzing and jumping about."

As a schoolboy Mowbray used to go to Ayresome Park to support Middlesbrough and even remembers the days of the not too distant past in the Premier League when the Riverside was full. He thinks pre-match ticket sales for tonight's game highlights the support is still there.

"I remember going to Boro games when I was a kid and loving it when a goal was scored, so we are really trying to trigger memories of the good times, and there have been goods times at Middlesbrough over the last dozen or so years," he said.

"We can try to recapture those feel-good moments of peoples' lives, such as Fabrizio Ravanelli scoring a hat-trick against Liverpool on the first day of the season (August 1996), when the stadium was alive.

"How do we do that? Well, we try to get a team that wins, a team that doesn't give up and doesn't know when it's beaten. The grittiness of the people of Teesside means they like to see a team like that. Let's see if we can give that to them."

Middlesbrough's eight match unbeaten run has seen them become contenders for a top two place. With only 15 matches played, however, Mowbray is not about to start predicting promotion - even if such a scenario would boost the club's drive to bring fans back.

He added: "You never lose the allegiance of the club that you follow. There are Boro fans all over the world who send me letters. A lot came in after the Sunderland game.

"The letters mostly come from serving soldiers. There are a lot of Boro fans in Afghanistan and there is the odd one from Australia. There are people who are proud of their teams results and the Sunderland game boosted our fans all over the world.

"There are guys sitting in their tent in Afghanistan who are inspired to write me a letter before going out on patrol. Winning 1-0 made them feel proud and they write to tell me, which is great.

"We have to catch a light under some people who are sitting on the border of whether they will come to a game or not. We must hope the fans that come on Friday enjoy the evening, go back to their mate who stayed in the pub and tell them that they would be mad to miss the next game. That's the hope."

Striker Ishmael Miller has recovered from hamstring trouble and is in contention to start ahead of Lukas Jutkiewicz, who tired on his return to action at Nottingham Forest on Tuesday.

Skipper Jonathan Woodgate is also set to return to the fold after missing the goalless draw at the City Ground, while both Marvin Emnes and Kevin Thomson trained yesterday after recovering from injuries.

* Boro fans are being urged to collect tickets early for tonight's game (kick-off 7.45pm) to avoid lengthy queues. Sales went beyond the 21,000 barrier last night and more are expected to be sold before kick-off. Tickets are priced £12 for adults and £7 for concessions.