TO what extent does the end justify the means? It’s a safe bet that Machiavelli, who first posed the question, was not a Middlesbrough fan, but the Italian philosopher nevertheless got the crux of the issue that looks like dominating discussions at the Riverside this season. To what extent does winning promotion compensate for a lack of thrills and spills?

As the final whistle blew at the end of Tuesday’s goalless draw with Rotherham, a large section of Middlesbrough’s home support expressed their frustration via a chorus of boos. At exactly the same time, the Riverside’s PA announcer, Mark Page, was confirming that Sheffield United’s failure to beat Stoke meant Boro had retained their position at the top of the Championship table.

Booed off for being top of the league. That really is something, but it reflects the mounting frustration that has grown throughout the Teessiders’ last three home matches. The goalless draw with Swansea City was disappointing, the 2-0 home defeat to Nottingham Forest set alarm bells ringing, and Tuesday’s latest stalemate against a Rotherham side who had not picked up a single away point prior to their trip to Teesside was the final straw for some.

Yes, there is pride at Boro’s position in the automatic promotion places, and many supporters are also able to take a degree of satisfaction from the tally of nine clean sheets. In the main, though, you don’t pay to attend football matches to watch clean sheets.

Tony Pulis will claim he is employed to get Middlesbrough into the Premier League, and if that means grinding things out at home on occasions, then that is the way things will have to be. The Boro boss will also insist his side create plenty of chances, although that is open to debate. Had Martin Braithwaite displayed more composure when he was clean through in the first half on Tuesday, it might well have been a different game. However, it is stretching things to claim Boro are a free-flowing attacking force.

Pulis doesn’t set his sides up that way, and anyone who has paid even the merest attention to the Welshman’s managerial career to date can hardly be surprised by his modus operandi at Middlesbrough. Defensive organisation, physical strength and a supremely well-drilled midfield. Pulis’ teams have always had those hallmarks, so it hardly a shock to see his Boro team playing in the manner they adopted on Tuesday.

Is that good enough, though, if the fans are chuntering in their seats? Pulis will claim it is, provided the results continue to hold up, but he is battling against both a football-wide shift in expectation and a set of circumstances that are unique to Middlesbrough.

Let’s take the issues specific to Middlesbrough first. Pulis might have succeeded Garry Monk when he took charge last December, but in many ways, he finds himself battling against the legacy bequeathed by Aitor Karanka.

Karanka’s style was broadly similar to that adopted by Pulis, with a reliance on a parsimonious defence and a midfield system that prioritised organisation and industry above flamboyance and flair.

Boro fans were generally supportive of Karanka’s approach during the Spaniard’s two promotion campaigns, but the tide turned when it became clear he was not going to adapt his philosophy in the Premier League, even though it quickly became obvious Boro were not going to be able to grind their way to safety.

Is history repeating itself under Pulis? Will Boro make it out of the Championship, only for their manager’s pragmatism to result in a season of unedifying toil in the top-flight? The ‘promised land’ doesn’t look so appealing if it amounts to little more than trying to scrape a goalless draw at Burnley.

Pulis will argue any talk of the Premier League is irrelevant at the moment, and stress that Boro’s sole focus should be on getting out of a league that can justifiably be branded as the most competitive in European football.

The trouble is that Boro fans can claim ‘been there, done that’ in terms of winning promotion. The aftermath of the Brighton game was the watershed moment, ending what had seemed an interminable wait for a return to the top-flight. Promotion this season would be fantastic, but it wouldn’t elicit quite the same emotional response.

It is not Pulis’ fault he has inherited that situation, but leaving aside the specifics of Boro’s position, it can also be argued that the 60-year-old is battling against a turning of the tide in terms of football supporters’ expectations in general.

Three or four decades ago, there would have been no need for a debate. In the early 1980s, one of Pulis’ predecessors as Stoke boss, Alan Durban, coined the phrase, ‘If you want entertainment, go and watch a bunch of clowns’. That pretty much summed up the way of things back then.

Football fans were fiercely loyal, wearing their unquestioning support as a badge of honour. If you wanted to watch football, you had to go to the game, and the quality of what was on offer was rarely discussed.

Now, it is increasingly accepted that football has become a branch of the entertainment industry, and the act of attending a match is one of a number of options open to the casual fan.

Instead of shelling out at least £27 to watch Tuesday’s game, Middlesbrough supporters could stay in the warmth of their own home and simply flick their Sky Sports channel to the red button to watch the action unfold at the Riverside. Alternatively, they could turn over to BT Sport and watch Cristiano Ronaldo strutting his stuff on his return to Old Trafford.

Thanks to the efforts of the television companies, desperate to wring every last penny of value out of their rights packages, we have been indoctrinated to regard every game as an event, every 90 minutes of action as a potentially life-changing experience.

It is impossible to live up to that, especially when you’re a manager like Pulis, whose job security is ultimately determined by results rather than perceptions of entertainment value.

That will not stop supporters demanding excitement though, and it will not stop the booing if Middlesbrough fail to score again when they host Derby County tomorrow.

That game, incidentally, is on live TV. So if you’re going to forego the couch and head to the Riverside, do you want to be entertained, or is it more important to see Middlesbrough win?

What do you think of Middlesbrough's style of play under Tony Pulis?

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