WHAT does the Boro mean to you? And what are the club’s core values?
Those were the key questions posed by club officials to an opinion forming cross-section of fans invited to what must’ve been a depressing post-season think tank.
Or, to give it the full blue sky thinking, 360 degree thinking holistic buzz word treatment:
“The aim is to begin the process of identifying words, phrases or ideas that best reflect what fans feel about their club, what makes it special and what its true values and principles should be. If we are clear about what we stand for we should be taking decisions that reflect these values.
“A clear set of values would ensure Boro have a clearer focus internally while also helping fans understand that decisions are always made in the best interests the Boro supporting community.”
Members of the cynical community could be forgiven for thinking the process has the hallmarks of a touchy-feely marketing focus group looking for the right subliminal buttons to press when devising a snappy slogan that ticks all the emotional boxes in selling an exciting range of products and services that have a commercial synergy with the unique Boro brand. Or something.
A similar discussion last year helped formulate much of the club’s marketing material. Phrases devined there plus a tagline originally generated by the innovative Twe12th Man supporters group – “It’s In The Blood” – were co-opted and plastered all over the season ticket campaign and club shop catalogue.
And a call at that fans’ forum for more overt identity with our industrial heritage led to this year’s training kit launch photos being taken on a blustery Redcar beach with the imposing view of the mothballed steelworks in the background.
It also led to the introduction of local soul food delicacy ‘parmo in a bun,’ which may well be a case of listening to the demands of a public keen on calorific intake but is also, again, about revenue streams rather than core beliefs and values.
A long and lively discussion around the key questions on the Fly Me To The Moon message board (and also a related one about what people disliked about the matchday experience) revealed some confusion over what those core values may be and how far people bought into them but also a vague consensus that whatever they were, or had been, the club were slowly drifting away from them.
In fact, that the club even need to ask is a worry and suggests they’re not sure either. But at least they are finally looking for a way to reconnect after a frosty decade of damaging institutional estrangement.
The central problem for the club is that in the post-Sky Premier League boom years it has become a slick commercial enterprise with an infrastructure geared to maximising revenue. It is a business operating in a highly competitive market, and a business that was geared almost entirely towards farming the TV cash.
Supporters who put in an ever smaller slice of the top flight pie were systematically devalued as the all important small screen bonanza increased year on year. Fans have been treated with breath-taking arrogance and at times open contempt. As a neccessary evil. Sit down, shut up, give us your money.
There have been improvements over the past two years with Neil Bausor coming in from outside with fresh ideas about a new inclusive relationship and the appointment of a fans officer. There have been a lot of meetings with fans groups and panels made up of season ticket holders, often those who have complained, and several suggestions have been taken up, although few radical ones.
But for all the talk of reconnecting and building relationships, and for all the moves over the past few years to open some channels of communication in the hope of detente to end the cold war, the charm offensive has faltered as the club shoots itself through the foot, pausing only to put their size nines in their mouth first.
It is not so long ago that the chief executive, faced with rising supporter disquiet and talk of falling gates as disillusioned fans walked away, sneered dismissively he was quite relaxed about people not buying season tickets and that, any way, proportionally, the club made more money from casual attenders.
Not so long ago either that the club was sending insensitive, crass, ill-judged and heavy-handed letters to its most passionate and vocal fans asking them to keep the noise down. Or else. The club became a national laughing stock
That was followed by another gaffe as the the chairman called for blind faith and insisted we were all in this together then infuriated legions of lifelong fans with a casual slight that insisted half of his core market came from a town full of Mackems.
And this season in a grossly miscalculated appropriation and cheap commercialisation of precious tradition they have shamefully fenced off the iconic Ayresome Park Gates, a powerful symbol of the past – our past! – making it the grand and impressive entrance limited exclusively to the suit traipsing into the expensive hospitality suites but inaccessible to ordinary fans on a matchday.
There is very little in those public expressions of the club’s corporate culture to suggest any core values shared with supporters or any awareness of the concerns of the ‘Boro supporting community’. For a decade or more the insular club have put a political firewall around the ground to keep supporters out.
That the club are belatedly trying to bridge the damaging yawning gap that has opened as a result is laudable – but they face a cultural problem that may be insurmountable.
Boro’s commercial machinery – and mentality – puts it at odds with the ‘customers’ for who the club is more than a product; it is an obsession, a duty and a part of their collective birthright. It is the glue that holds the community together.
In towns like Boro, football is about identity. It is about pride. It is about the past, the present and the future. It is the one all engaging dynamic enterprise that unites the town and it is the single most important factor in portraying a positive image both to the rest of the country and internally. The health and success of the club are part and parcel of the self esteem of the people in Teesside, and not just those who go to games.
And for those that do go, it is about a collective mass experience. The club is a central part of our cultural DNA with terrace tales of Camsell, Hardwick, Mannion, Clough, Souness, Slaven and Juninho and an inherited bundle of “typical Boro” traits like paranoia, parochialsm, defeatism and defiance a central part of our oral history, a tradition – or burden – conscientiously passed down the generations and with solo attendance at the game as a Teesside rite of passage.
It is about shared memories and experiences, good and bad: about Charlton’s Champions; about liquidation; about as many relegations as promotion; about that first walk down Wembley Way in the ZDS Cup final, and incredibly about getting used to it; about the glory years of hope and ambition with the Riverside Revolution; about the ecstacy of Cardiff and the despair at Eindhoven; and about the pain of going from Boom To Doom and slipping back to a square one downsizing of our dreams.
It is about unalloyed joy, vindication, frustration, anger, defiance and depression, and about sharing those emotions with friends, neighbours and even complete strangers who may as well be brothers when the goal flies in. And it is ours.
It is about the human condition in a harsh economic environment where the club is a proxy for our battle for survival and our one hope of success, recognition and redemption.
It is impossible to distill the essence of that relationship into a snappy slogan about shared values and even if could be captured it would sound trite so long as the words are not backed up by deeds. And so often that is the case.
It is all very well Boro talking about just being the current stewards of a club putting itself at the heart of the community – but this is a community where thousands who love the club – the kids from the estates, the unemployed, those who struggle to stay afloat on the minimum wage – can’t afford to go to the game, frozen out during the years of plenty, left with their noses up against the window during the sell out Premiership party. Now we desperately need them back on board but they can’t afford the fare.
Teesside is a low wage economy and an area of massive deprivation and disadvantage. We suffer disproportionately in every downtown and more so this time as the already fragile manufacturing base is dismantled and shipped abroad. And with government cuts to the public sector looming that will get worse. But the cheapest price for an adult walk-up ticket to see Scunthorpe, Doncaster or Barnsley is ÃÂ£23.
Season tickets may well be good value – especially for kids – but matchday prices for casual fans are punative and irrational when the ground is already half-empty. That is a damning indictment of a club alienated from so many of its own core support.
And it is all very well calling on supporters to rally round and show their passion or whatever the focus group comes up with – but this is a club where everything about the matchday experience militates against that. Where away fans are given the prime spot behind one goal, where the PA blares out Pavlovian prompting and drowns out natural celebration, where too often the stewards seem over-zealous in their application of safety legislation that is strangling the atmosphere and where the most visibly noisy fans appear to be regarded as the enemy.
The Red Faction – a group of leather lunged loyalists who have actively opted to do something about the collapse in atmosphere with songs and banners and humour and non-stop chanting – have been isolated by attempts to stop ticket sales and transfers to that block and are surrounded by a ring of hi-vis vests lest they infect the inert masses.
After the final home game against Coventry they stayed for half-an-hour after the whistle chanting in an empty stadium but rather than beam with pride at such passion for a team who had largely under-performed the stewards fidgeted and simmered and closed in menacingly while senior staff sneered. One even described them as ‘muppets’. Not a lot of evidence of ‘shared values’ there.
For many fans their values and relationship with the club were forged long before the sterilisation and commercialisation of the game. Their Holgate values of unashamed and unconditional support through thick and thin and tangible, vocal passion for their team but also a willingness to express frustration and anger and raw emotion and their folk memories of the old terrace norms – standing, shouting, swearing, laughing, drinking and dissolving themselves into the moment – are often seen as an embarrassment.
The truth is that what many, if not most, fans want from the matchday experience is often diametrically opposed to what the club can deliver. It isn’t ersatz atmosphere blaring out of the speakers and a wider choice of branded goods in the kiosk.
The truth is that in the soulless modern game geared towards the mediocre millionaires leaving the scene of the crime in their ÃÂ£100k motors and grey corporate profiteering there are very few values shared with the old school supporters.
The best Boro can hope for is to paper over the cracks for a while by putting a winning team out on the pitch.