WHEN Tony Pulis conducts his weekly pre-match press conference tomorrow morning, he will speak of the need to beat promotion rivals Leeds United on Saturday afternoon.

He’s right, but his comments will only tell half the story. As well as recording victories on the pitch, Middlesbrough desperately need to start winning the battle for hearts and minds.

If Boro beat Leeds at the weekend, they will close to within four points of the automatic promotion places, but this does not feel like a club on the brink of a triumphant return to the Premier League. Instead, the prevailing mood is one of despondency and despair, tinged with an increasingly embittered dose of frustration and anger.

Tuesday’s humiliating FA Cup defeat at Newport County was the catalyst for some of that anger to spill over from the stands, but it was not an isolated incident. For all that Boro have been in the top six ever since they beat Sheffield United in the opening week of the season, discontent has been festering fairly close to the surface. Another couple of setbacks, and it feels as if it could boil over.

Why the unhappiness? From the outside looking in, Boro look reasonably well placed, not promotion certainties admittedly, but part of a small batch of clubs who have a realistic chance of making it out of the Championship this season. Last weekend’s 3-2 win at West Brom was a magnificent result, ensuring Boro retained their three-point cushion to seventh position. Purely in terms of points, Derby County, Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest and Stoke City would swap places with them at a stroke.

Yet dig a little deeper and the root causes for the current dissatisfaction become clear. Off the pitch, there is frustration at the lack of investment in the January transfer window and the failure to sign a single player on deadline-day at the end of last month.

On it, there is mounting displeasure at Pulis’ playing style and his persistent refusal to pick certain players in certain positions. Throw in a surprisingly poor home record – Boro have won just two of their last ten league games at the Riverside, a sequence that features defeats to Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest – and you have most of the ingredients that are required for a supporters’ rebellion.

Is that fair? Possibly on some scores; almost certainly not on others. The off-field disgruntlement is understandable, but fans are badly misguided if they start blaming Steve Gibson for a perceived lack of ambition. With Boro’s parachute payments due to expire at the end of the season, Gibson and his chief executive, Neil Bausor, have to start ensuring they can balance the books if the club’s stay in the Championship extends beyond the end of the current campaign.

Gibson has plugged plenty of budgetary gaps from his own pocket in the past, but he is not duty bound to do so. At some stage, the books have to balance, and if that means the money is not there to sign a Premier League winger on a four-year deal worth £60,000-a-week, then that is simply the way it will have to be. Similarly, if there is not room on the balance sheet for Stewart Downing’s current wages for another full season, the winger will have to remain on the bench.

None of that is ideal, but having made a massive investment in the wake of their relegation from the top-flight, Boro are paying a high price for last season’s failure to win promotion at the first time of asking. The gamble didn’t pay off, and while Gibson can be criticised for his decision to appoint Garry Monk and trust him with the Premier League riches, he cannot be blamed for wanting to ensure his club is not plunged into severe financial trouble in the next few years.

Pulis accepts that, and it is to the Boro boss’ credit that he did not throw his toys out of the pram when it became clear he was not going to be able to strengthen his squad on deadline day. It is not hard to think of at least one of his recent predecessors who might well have chosen a different tack.

Yet for all that he has accepted the constraints he is being forced to work under, Pulis is not a popular figure with a large number of Boro fans. Why? His style of football is a major factor, and while he is not about to radically change the methods and philosophies that have served him so well in his lengthy career, a couple of tweaks could help with both results and the weight of public opinion, especially when Boro are playing at the Riverside.

Pairing two centre-forwards together didn’t work at Newport in the week, but might it be an option in home games, especially if his side are trailing? Does playing with four or sometimes even five central midfielders really work when the likes of new signing Rajiv van La Parra or the previously-effective Marcus Tavernier are sitting on the bench? Ultimately, results determine the effectiveness of any managerial approach, but while Pulis can claim his tactics have borne fruit on the road, he cannot make the same claim about matches at the Riverside.

Pulis tried to rally the fans in the wake of deadline-day, but he undoubtedly contributed to the current air of negativity when he bemoaned his squad’s deficiencies in the early weeks of the season, claiming they were ‘not good enough to win promotion’. Those words dampened morale – somehow, he needs to find a way of building it back up.

The allegations of arguments between players and supporters in the wake of Tuesday’s defeat hardly helped raise the mood, and while they remain unsubstantiated, in the court of public opinion, the damage has been done. Boro’s players need to be mindful of the need to rebuild relationships when they trot out at the Riverside tomorrow. The departure of Grant Leadbitter has robbed the squad of one of its key leaders, not to mention a native North-Easterner who consistently gave the impression that he felt the supporters’ pain – in the midfielder’s absence, someone else needs to step up to convince the fans that they share their hopes and despair when things go wrong.

Perhaps none of that will matter if Boro thump Leeds on Saturday, but even a positive result in a game that is akin to a local derby will not assuage all the concerns that have bubbled to the surface in the last few days.

Some of the wounds that have been exposed will take much longer to heal, and while Pulis will be able to take justified pride in winning promotion this season, it will be an even bigger achievement if he is able to transform the prevailing mood on Teesside in the next three months.