NEIL WARNOCK says the return of fans to the Riverside Stadium would be the “best Christmas present he could wish for”, and has urged everyone on Teesside and its surrounding areas to do all they can to ensure the region does not spend the rest of the year in tier three of the Government’s new coronavirus banding system.

Yesterday’s announcement of the Government’s post-lockdown plans has paved the way for supporters to start returning to football stadia from next Wednesday. Clubs in tier-one locations will be allowed to admit 4,000 fans or half of their ground capacity (whichever is the lower figure), while clubs in tier-two areas will be able to house 2,000 spectators. However, clubs in tier-three regions will still be banned from admitting anyone to their matches.

The Government is set to announce which areas fall into which tiers on Thursday, but the expectation at this stage is that the vast majority of the North-East will be placed into tier three because the number of coronavirus cases remains high.

That would mean Middlesbrough would be unable to admit supporters to next Wednesday’s home game with Swansea City, even though matches taking place in other areas of the country on the same day might be staged with fans present.

Warnock admits it would be disappointing if Boro were to miss out next week, but he still regards the return of supporters anywhere as a positive development.

And having recovered from coronavirus himself earlier this autumn, the 71-year-old is calling on Middlesbrough’s fans to do all they can to help ensure the return of fans to the Riverside occurs as quickly as possible.

“I just implore everyone on Teesside, and around the area, to stick to the rules and to try to be careful because we need to get that (R rate) down so we can get fans back in,” said the Boro boss, ahead of tomorrow’s home game with Derby County. “It makes such a difference. I don’t think there’d be a better Christmas present than to get a couple of thousand people in the stadium – it would be great.

“It would be a handicap (if other teams were able to do it initially and Boro were not), but even if we didn’t have any fans and other people were allowed fans in, I’d be delighted. I don’t mean delighted that we couldn’t have our fans in, but just to get any fans back in would be great.

“Mentally, to let them have their own club and something to look forward to, I don’t think you could put a price on that. We’ve just got to try to get to level two – but to do that, it’s going to be hard work. We can’t just carry on, we’ve got to work hard to get to level two so we can have these fans in.”

Middlesbrough were one of the club to run an EFL pilot in September that saw 1,000 supporters attend the home draw with Bournemouth.

The trial, which was widely acknowledged as a major success, was supposed to pave the way for a phased return of larger attendances, but the Government changed tack a few days later, introducing the tiered scheme which led to a tightening of regulations right across the North-East.

Warnock was not present at the Bournemouth game as it took place during his own period of enforced self-isolation, but he has seen and heard enough to appreciate just how much of a lift it gave everyone who was involved.

“There were no problems at all with it,” he said. “It’s disappointing (it didn’t continue), but it’s hard for the Government to get it right. It’s difficult, but they’re doing it for a reason and we’ve just got to adhere to that. The way we looked after those thousand, and the safety precautions we took, was fantastic, really. It was far healthier than going in a pub – I thought the club was super that day.”

It is March since a full crowd was admitted to the Riverside, and the last eight months have had a detrimental impact on Middlesbrough’s finances, not to mention the mental health and wellbeing of the club’s fans.

Players at all clubs have had to get used to playing in front of empty stands, but while the experience has sucked the life out of the national game, Warnock concedes it could actually have benefited some of his players.

“I think the players miss it, although I think in our case, it might have helped one or two just to get themselves established and build up their confidence without worrying about making a mistake,” he said. “I look at the likes of (Marc) Bola and (Anfernee) Dijksteel, and early doors, if we’d had a full house and they’d made mistakes, who knows where they would have been.

“Whereas now, I think they’re established, and I think they can go on and play many, many years for the club. I think that’s helped in a way, but then once you’ve got your confidence like they have, you want your fans behind you because you know you can do more with their support.”