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The mystery of the missing Middlesbrough fans
ON the pitch, it ended in disappointment, with the concession of yet another late goal. But it was away from the field of play that Middlesbrough's home game with Derby County on Wednesday really set the alarm bells ringing.
The attendance of 13,377 was the lowest ever recorded at the Riverside for a league fixture, and was the club's lowest league gate in more than 19 years.
There were mitigating factors, most notably the scheduling of two home games in the space of five days, an attractive Champions League match with English interest on live television and a sparse travelling support from Derby, but there are always grounds for mitigation somewhere.
The harsh reality is that Tony Mowbray's appointment has failed to win back thousands of lapsed Middlesbrough supporters, and the club is increasingly struggling to hold on to the loyal band who have hitherto kept the faith.
Yesterday morning, on Twitter, I posed the question, 'What do Middlesbrough supporters want?' There were a couple of off-the-wall replies – no midweek matches at all, a new reduced-capacity stadium – but on the whole, the responses could be broadly characterised by one of two statements.
It seems that Boro fans either want a more attractive brand of football or significantly-reduced ticket prices. Unfortunately, neither is likely to materialise in the short or medium term.
The argument about the quality of football no doubt relates to a pre-conceived notion of how a side managed by Mowbray should play.
It speaks of a Teesside version of tiki-taka, of slick, aesthetically-pleasing passing and a seemingly blind faith in the value of being on the attack.
Middlesbrough fans, I was told yesterday, demand good football. Well with the possible exception of Stoke City supporters, name me a group of fans who don't.
The reality is that this is the Championship, and three-and-a-half years after their relegation from the top-flight, Middlesbrough are a mid-ranking Championship side.
The glory days are a memory, and it is naïve to assume that Mowbray can somehow conjure a free-flowing side from nowhere. He has tried to make positive changes, but this summer was his first real opportunity to properly dismantle the squad he inherited from Gordon Strachan, and his budget for the recruitment of replacements was limited.
With the greatest of respect to Mustapha Carayol and Emmanuel Ledesma, if you're signing players from Bristol Rovers and Walsall, it's unrealistic to expect to play like Barcelona two months down the line.
Has the football been all that bad? The last two home games have clearly been extremely disappointing, but prior to that Boro had won four of their opening seven matches. In a league as tough and competitive as the Championship, no one is setting the world alight.
“The crowd has been low all season,” said Mowbray, in the wake of Wednesday's game. “If you search for reasons, is it a lack of entertainment? We won three on the trot (at home) and the fourth game only had 14,000 here so I am not sure it is that we are not winning. We had three wins on the bounce so perhaps you have to look deeper.”
Which brings us to the issue of cost. Like much of the rest of the North-East, Teesside has been badly hit by the ongoing recession. Finances are tight, cheaper alternative leisure pursuits are available, and with the Championship lacking sparkle, it is becoming harder to justify the cost of watching a live game at the Riverside.
Middlesbrough's next home game pits them against Hull City on Tuesday, October 23. The cheapest adult ticket for Boro Pride members is £22, with standard adult tickets ranging from £24-31, entry for over-65s starting at £16 and the price of entry for under-18s set at £14.
Clearly that's not cheap, but is it really that expensive? It's broadly in line with the rest of the Championship – tickets for Boro's next two away games are set by the home club at £26 and £28 respectively – with costs having remained largely unchanged for half-a-decade, albeit it that prices back then were for matches in the Premier League.
There is an argument the club should be offering half-price deals for selected matches or even giving thousands of free tickets away, but they already offer attractive deals for local schools and junior football clubs, with child tickets often available for £6, and have to be mindful of the prices that have already been paid by season-ticket holders.
And it doesn't take a financial genius to work out that if you halve ticket prices but only secure a five per cent uplift in the crowd, you don't make money.
'Ah, but you attract the fans of the future and get people back into the habit of going to a game,' came the response on Twitter. Fine, but the argument only really works if those floating fans can be persuaded to return. The evidence of Hartlepool's cut-price season-ticket deal suggests that is easier said than done.
Some targeted ticketing deals could have a positive effect, and in the current climate they are surely worth trying. But my hunch is that simply slashing prices will not see crowds of 20-25,000 packing into the Riverside. Yesterday, two people told me they had spare tickets for Wednesday's game and couldn't give them away.
It is a major headache, and you have to sympathise with Steve Gibson, who continues to subsidise Boro out of his own purse. He constantly claims he is the custodian of a club that exists for the people of Teesside. Increasingly though, the people of Teesside don't appear to care either way.
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