WHAT kind of team are Boro? Steady now. No swearing.
A lot of angst ridden empty shells will only just now be recovering from Saturday’s small screen anaesthetic and insisting – expletives deleted – they are a boring one, a limited one, a shot-shy one, a frustrating one – and one in a self-inflicted state of flux that will never challenge for promotion so long as they are so brittle and blunt.
But long term, what kind of team do Boro aim to be? What now are the strategic objectives of the club in the coming seasons? And will the fans buy that vision?
Is there a cunning five year plan? A well researched commercial and football model? A grand mission statement to be Teesside’s premier providers of on-the-pitch excellence?
If there is, shouldn’t they now make it clear to a shrinking crowd that is becoming increasingly jittery about Boro’s direction? If there isn’t we are in big trouble.
With wage bill slashing and tight-pursed transfer activity still on the agenda it appears the club are restructuring for when the game’s gravy train hits the buffers. But does that fevered activity in the shadows indicate a shrewd organisation addressing pressing problems? Or is it resigned rearranging of the deckchairs on the Titanic?
The cash-splashed Golden Age is over, that much is clear – yet we should still be big-hitters in the Championship with the parachute payment cheque for ÃÂ£11.2m on its way and another major chunk to come off the wages when deals for the likes of Pogatetz, Aliadiere and Riggott run out. That’s ÃÂ£75k a week or over ÃÂ£3m a year to be recycled into fit and productive members of the squad.
But do you have confidence in how they will spend it? If they will spend it? Will it be for new players, the bank or Mido’s pay-off? In what direction is the Riverside Revolution now heading? Are we a team that spots future talent early (or still the team that rejected ÃÂ£300,000 Graham Dorrans and ÃÂ£250,000 Ross McCormack?) or one that squanders money on ‘projects’? Or do we just recruit free transfers from North of the Border now? Give us a clue.
Boro are light years and the gross national product of a medium sized African state away from rejoining the Premier League, let alone resuming the heady days of European ambitions when we briefly viewed the likes of Villa as our rivals.
But are we still potentially a side like Birmingham, Stoke or Bolton who have clawed into the top table to earn patronising plaudits for being plucky, well-organised and well managed but who ultimately are without the financial clout to compete long term?
Or have Boro relinquished ‘ambition’ and accepted life in the upper reaches of the Championship, braced for a brave stab at promotion but ready to concede there are now far better equipped sides and that we are outsiders?
There appears no consensus among supporters of where we are, what they expect and what should be regarded as acceptable. There is no real consensus even over the manager and the prospects for his Strachanovite revolution (although most accept Southgate was a busted flush) and no real idea of what next year’s team will look like. Or how it will play. It is hard for fans to buy into such a vague cloud of shapeless ideas.
That lack of clarity appears to be shared by the club as mixed messages emerge about the need for promotion next term and the need to continue to prune the salary burden while the unfortunate relegation and the reasons for it have been swept under the carpet. Strachan has talked about ‘entertaining’ football after a shocking season but his buys and style so far suggest conservative solidity is the priority, initially at least.
While no one can doubt the passion and patience of the crowd their unity is threatened by a soul-sapping draining of collective morale and a lack of concrete reasons for optimism. It is hard to fathom and realistic vision for the future or come up with a rallying cry other than “blind faith” – and that fell on increasingly sceptical ears last time.
Some supporters are now just going through the motions in silence. Others don’t enjoy the matchday experience and some seem to actively resent even being there and have slipped into a default setting of vocal dissent. Very few casual fans attend and even season ticket holders are going AWOL amid predictions of a matchday meltdown next term. It will be interesting to see exactly how many take advantage of the offer for the dead rubber against Coventry at a time when anacdotal evidence suggests you can’t give tickets away and few people believe the official crowd figure anyway.
It is not just that supporters they have been worn down by two seasons – longer maybe – of drab and uninspiring football and a slow motion slide towards a prison of mediocrity. That has happened before without undermining the fans’ fierce pride and shared vision.
Nor is it just price. A long season ticket freeze and more games at this level makes the match cheaper now than five years ago. VFM is about more than the cost.
One of the factors is that Boro fans had their hopes and expectations raised then dashed in a cruel deception that they could actually be a big spending member of the elite, winning regular trophies and competing on the top table.
That new era of unprecedented success duped even the most hard-bitten old Holgate Enders to cast off the traditional armour of cynicism – but as the dreams turned to dust the protective clothing and various items of weaponry have been seized again with a vengeance. They won’t get fooled again.
As the gloom shrouds Teesside expectation levels feel very low. That is not because fans do not care for the club. On the contrary they feel deeply. So deeply it hurts.
But they feel frustrated, alienated, ignored and powerless to contribute to a project that is no longer clear cut – and increasingly fearful this long drawn out sorry state of affairs appears to have no end in sight.
And unless there is now some significant statement of intent that offers a real sign of hope for dramatic improvement – or at least concrete progress – many could be driven away for good. Experience shows those that wrap in the season card and say they will pick and chose usually choose not to bother. They get out of the habit and resent the walk-up price sting should they decide to come to a match on a whim.
But deep down fans – even the most apparantly cynical – want to be persuaded to stay on board. They want the club to win the argument over renewal. They want Boro to do or say something compelling and exciting that relights the fire, renews the faith and recharges the batteries. Give the broken hearted a reason to believe in the future.
It can’t just be a gesture. The club can’t magic another Juninho-like figure out a hat.
But they can help sweep away some of the cynicism, pessimism and gloom with a frank and fearless commitment to engage openly with the fans. They can address the fears of supporters – or customers in all seater new speak – directly and honestly and tackle the crisis of confidence head on.
We may be at a watershed. The coming summer could be the most politically and culturally – not to mention economically – important since the arrival of Bryan Robson. If Gordon Strachan doesn’t get it right and we don’t get up by hook or by crook then the money runs out and we could be locked in this league for a generation.
It is crucial we go into a decisive season totally united behind the gaffer, the team and the club, with the supporters fully committed to the cause and with a crowd armed with the knowledge that the club is heading onwards and upwards. If Boro are to succeed next year it can only be with a passionate crowd right behind them.
And key to that is knowledge. Fans must understand and share – and support – the club’s economic and political realities, how the key problems will be tackled and their vision for growth and renewal. Right now that is not the case.
It is time for a restatement of the club’s intent. A State of the Nation address.
Not just a spin-driven insincere season ticket sales pitch and platitudes on Radio Brownlee but a compelling manifesto for putting Boro back in the top flight which can command the confidence and loyalty of supporters who yearn for a dynamic, vibrant club pursuing a coherent and successful strategy they can rally around.
And neither will talk of a far reaching post mortem that comes to nothing or a few fall guy’s heads rolling cut much ice. We’ve been there and done that. There needs to be a warts and all assessment of the massive failures of recent years on and off the pitch – the woeful scouting, the wasted transfer millions, the insular defensive and opaque culture, the cack-handed customer relations, marketing mishaps and PR gaffes as well as the dismal football – and action taken to prevent repeats.
It is not about recriminations or scapegoating but about problem solving, bridge-building and forging the bond between team and crowd that will will need to give us the extra edge in what will be a season that could define the next decade.
It is time to spell out exactly what fans are being offered in the next few seasons. There has never been a more urgent need for the club to engage sincerely with supporters, to pro-actively go out and sell them the dream.
Why not enter the spirit of the election and take the message to the people? Instead of remote radio interaction why not a real hustings? Why not suits and players visiting pubs and clubs, factories offices and schools in the Boro team oach to talk to – and listen to – the fans? Sure they may get some stick and face some tough questions. But equally they may find out exactly how passionate people are for the club and realise that far from being a neccessary evil the supporters are actually a key ingredient in the mix.
We need Boro to win this close season’s crucial battle for hearts and mind. Or at least get an entertaining draw that persuades us to come back for more.
MEANWHILE, over in the Twitterverse….
Here’s some interesting things I have been pointing the browsers of my “followers” towards in a sinister cult fashion over the past few days.
Not football but still worth a read, the Nether Regions is a brilliant blog riffing on the parochial absurdities of local papers and the phenonoma of “the Gazette face.”
The Score Draw: a weekly pencil powered round up of the Premier League’s key moments… “like Match of the Day but with stick men.”
Got. Got. Got. Need…. retro-cultural gold dust: the complete World Cup 1990 Panini sticker album scanned in and put up on-line for hours of mulletastic former Boro player spotting fun.
The Spoiler’s Top 10 Footy Films, including the brilliant Miracle of Bern & the match action sequence from Gregory’s Girl … but not Kes and Damned United misses out too.
Our hero, box-to-box battler Barry Robson oozes steely will to win on Radio Brownlee
Plus, what I think about when I really should be writting up that Colin Cooper interview, the Boro ‘indiefootynames’ list including Ziege Ziege Sputnick, Sigur Ross Turnbull and Nine Inch Nails. Feel free to add your own.
For all this and more on-line time-wasting you can get down with the kids and follow me on trendy Twitter here.