WELL, THERE goes another one thousand season ticket renewals chuntering away early through the underpass. Boro could have gone tenth – and above Newcastle – and set up a morale boosting last month of the season by beating Average Villa and Martin O’Neill, the man who could so easily have been the Riverside supremo last summer.
Instead the glaring weaknesses of the squad were exposed and ineffective tactical changes exploited in a second half slump that cost Boro more than just the points. The feel good factor from last week’s demolition of Watford has gone, the Southgate honeymoon is over and the best we can hope for now is lurching towards safety aided by the ineptitude of the teams below. It is hardly the Great Leap Forward envisaged when the Dark Age of McClarenism ended.
The Villa defeat was a disaster. The terrace cognescenti will argue long and hard in the pubs and clubs of Teesside and on the message boards about the lasting political significance of Southgate defeat by O’Neill and their relative stock on the unofficial BossDaq index will be adjusted acordingly. The Boro boss gained ground with a shrewd second half change in the 1-1 draw at Villa Park and going into the game it was easy for loyalists to dismiss O’Neill as having failed to transform a far bigger club, but the way the Irishman took advantage of Southgate’s flawed substititions saw the pendulum swing back and our man’s shares taking a hit.
But that is just navel gazing for the soccerati. What is far more damaging is that thousands stomped away from the game angry, despondent and frustrated because it was a contest that appeared to have been thrown away. It was a golden opportunity squandered by a team who did not have the cutting edge to kill off a poor side, the quality on the bench to make significant positive changes nor, crucially, the desire or ambition to match that of the supporters.
Poor substitutions, some individuals simply not up to the job and a collapse in a game that Boro were dominating will have an impact on season ticket sales. After the Manchester City own goal plenty of waverers decided that if the team would not bother to turn up then neither would they next season and the Villa game would have nudged new layers towards their own big decision.
The renewal forms are in the pipeline and the new price structure are being discussed now – and it will take a mould-breaking move to stem to flow of deserters from the Red Book Army.
Boro have a respectable record at home this season. Of 17 games they have won nine, drawn three and lost five which gives a decent Riverside return of 30 points from a total tally of 39. From that we can see where the problem lies and it would be fair to assume that Boro’s home crowd should be happy but in football, as the cliche goes, you are only as good as your last game. Supporters generally have a short term memory and many of the nine wins will have long ago blurred into other shapeless seasons and the more recent vivid, shocking, half-hearted displays against Manchester City and Villa will outweight them.
And if the truth is told many of those nine wins were not great games. The 2-1 win over Chelsea was a fantastic early fillip but Boro were torn apart in the first half and only a late flurry as the champions sat back swung the game. The 1-0 win over Newcastle was an insipid derby that could easily have gone the other way. The 1-0 win over West Ham was dull and tense, the 2-0 over a poor Charlton side laboured and flat.
Only the 5-1 demolition of Bolton has been an outstanding and entertaining display although the wins over Everton, Sheffield United and Reading were good, solid shows that only the most creative moaners could really complain about.
The problem the club have is they are in the midst of a post-Einhoven stagnation of the Boro spirit at a time when widespread opinion is that the game does not represent value for money. That feeling became endemic under McClaren’s era of functional caution and while there have been encouraging signs this season under Southgate, results and performances have not been good enough to turn the tide of pessimism and resignation.
Now under pressure from other clubs slashing prices – and a tabloid campaign to drive down ticket costs – Boro must think very carefully about a structure that will retain Red Books yet leave them room to manoevere with on the day discounts to lure back those who walk away on a pick and choose basis.
The club have long had a policy against match-by-match discounts because they have invested so much in the Red Book sell out ideal. The chairman has gone on record as saying he is against slashing casual prices as it it “devalues the product” and so big incentives have been given to get the up front commitment of season tickets. The price structure has been weighted towards the eason ticket and that made perfect sense in the days of sell outs and waiting lists.
But charging higher prices for unsold stock makes no sense at all when the buzz has gone, season ticket sales are ebbing away every week and there is next to no no walk-up market. Asking those less committed to pay a tenner more is a massive disincentive to casual fans, helps push away permanently those who break the Red Book habit but who intended to ‘pick and choose’ , and moves the masses towards the orbit of pubs showing al-jazeera. The prices have reinforced the idea that football is moving beyond the reach of ordinary Teessiders.
The club need to bring down matchday prices without shattering the appeal of the Red Book. As on day prices have been so high they have some leeway on this but they are terrified that major cuts will undermine the appeal of the season ticket.
To counter that they must look at ways of making the Red Book more than just a financial relationship. They status of the book was tainted by the sour taste of the Eindhoven ticketing scramble too so the club need to repair the damage done there and push on the develop a whole new strategy to bolster the reasons fans buy into the idea of the club.
Boro must offer fans something more than just a match ticket or many will judge it on Man City and Villa. They need to go beyond that and completely renegotiate their relationship with the supporters. The Red Book should be tied into a vibrant membership scheme with real benefits and a structure that gives fans the chance to have an imput into how the club works.
Ideally that should include non-voting representation on the board and a real consultative role at every level of the clubs’s community and commercial activities. Ideally that would be tied to a “Red Share” issue in which fans could take a symbolic stake in the club. Ideally it would mean wider co-operation with the Twe12th Man and other supporters’ initiatives to help foster a new culture of fandom and an acknowledgement that some aspects of the new all seater environment are counter-productive and could be changed for the better.
There are whispers abroad of a new badge and a major ‘rebranding’ of the club. We must hope that rather than superficial tweaks and lip service to the role of the fans that the exercise can produce a new dynamic that can stem the slow ebbing away of support.
What do you think can do that? What must the club do to prevent crowds sliding and recharge the emotional batteries? Is it just down to price? Or is there a way to make the relationship warmer, closer and more dynamic?