THERE’S nothing new about a group of football fans starting the season with a spring in their step.

Optimism is pretty much a prerequisite if you’re going to spend the next nine months slogging around the country in support of your team, but the mood outside Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium tomorrow will be slightly different to the normal anticipatory excitement.

Expectancy is the prevailing emotion on Teesside at the moment, and it brings positives and negatives with it.

There is a strong belief that Gordon Strachan’s side have what it takes to win promotion to the Premier League; there is a nagging acknowledgment that, if they don’t, the future could be very messy indeed.

Not quite make or break perhaps, but given the absence of another parachute payment beyond the end of this season, it could be a case of succeed or spend the next decade mired in mediocrity.

Thankfully, however, reasons for optimism abound. While most Championship clubs have been counting the pennies this summer, Gordon Strachan has been able to spend £6m, hardly a figure to be sniffed at in these financially-straitened times.

He will rightly point out that much of that money is the residual portion of the £8m Boro received from the sale of Adam Johnson, plus the cash that was saved by the removal of Emanuel Pogatetz, Jeremie Aliadere and Chris Riggott from the wage bill.

He will also claim that, contrary to popular perception, he does not boast one of the biggest squads in the Championship.

Nevertheless, he can hardly quibble about the level of support he has received.

As ever, there will be plenty of Boro’s rivals wishing they had Steve Gibson in charge.

Has he spent the money wisely? Only time will tell, but the initial signs are positive.

After scoring only 25 goals in their 23 home matches last season, Boro suddenly look like a side capable of finding the net with regularity.

The quality of the Scottish Premier League is debatable, but the fact that Kris Boyd is the competition’s all-time record goalscorer is sufficient to confirm his class. If he avoids injury, there is every chance of the striker topping the Championship goalscoring charts.

His partnership with Scott McDonald should be productive from the off, with Lee Miller, Jonathan Franks, Luke Williams and Leroy Lita providing adequate, if somewhat unproven, cover.

Creativity could be an issue and, while new arrivals Tarmo Kink and Andy Halliday offer potential from the flanks, it is telling that Strachan continues to chase Scottish duo Craig Conway and Andrew Driver. Another winger would be a useful addition before the transfer window swings shut.

Further infield, Kevin Thomson and Nicky Bailey have arrived to bolster a midfield that now looks as competitive as any in the division. Even if Gary O’Neil and Didier Digard depart, as still appears likely, the presence of Barry Robson, Willo Flood and Julio Arca should still help to eradicate much of the brittleness that characterised Boro’s midfield play last season.

The defence remains something of a work in progress, but the returning Stephen McManus is arguably Strachan’s most important summer capture, while Matthew Bates is effectively another new signing having spent an entire season on the sidelines.

Bates is likely to start against Ipswich tomorrow at left-back and, while he might not end the campaign in that position, his versatility and poise will make him a crucial performer, providing he stays fit.

After six months of firefighting in the wake of his appointment, Strachan has finally assembled something resembling the team he wanted when he agreed to replace Gareth Southgate.

Tough, experienced and boasting a couple of strikers capable of turning a game – perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to the new-look Boro squad is that it resembles the Newcastle United outfit that romped to the Championship title last season. Let’s hope there’s a similar outcome next May.

BORO aren’t the only North-East team kicking off this weekend of course – Hartlepool United embark on their now traditional task of marrying the hopes of their faithful to the realities of life as one of the smallest clubs in League One.

It’s difficult to know how to feel about Pools – should we praise them for simply surviving in a division that includes the likes of Southampton, Charlton and Sheffield Wednesday, clubs that regularly attract upward of 20,000 fans, or should we criticise their failure to emulate 2005’s run to the play-off final?

I’m inclined towards the former given the competitiveness of the league in which they find themselves, but the goalposts would shift dramatically were a muchrumoured takeover to become a reality.

An injection of new funds would enable Hartlepool to offer wages commensurate to some of the leading League One sides, but until the cash is in the club’s accounts, Chris Turner will have to continue his policy of trawling the Football League’s bargain bin.

This summer’s arrivals list has been largely unspectacular – it is hard to imagine the likes of Evan Horwood and Paul Murray joining too many of League One’s leading clubs, so survival must be Pools’ primary ambition.

Even that, though, could depend on James Brown picking up where he left off in the second half of last season.