FORGET tales of impending Turnstile Armageddon. Boro gates are not in terminal free-fall. They are just bouncing along at their historic second tier norm.
Yes, I know agonising over attendance has become as much a part of the matchday routine as moaning about goal music and #haters hurling abuse at Hoyte. And that’s understandable. The stinging sight of empty acres reminds us of our painful rapid fall from grace and the steep downward graph is seen as a stark indication of the club’s ambitions and trajectory. It is a visible and unavoidable symbol of decline. It hurts.
But it is nothing new. Seriously. Current crowd levels are bad news for income streams, for supporters’ and players’ morale and for the mental health of those overly sensitive to seat-counting jibes from cruel neighbours. But it is not some unprecedented statistical quirk.
In fact, the current crowd levels are perfectly normal for Boro in this division. I know. I’ve crunched the numbers from every season since the war. We are bang on the curve.
With a new attritional campaign looming it is almost time for a masochistic cult of self-flagellating Boro fans to resume what has become a depressing and destructive cycle of bickering and recrimination over attendances. You can understand why. Relegation and retrenchment has been followed by a spreading rash of red seats, the matchday markings of our current lowly status, and by almost weekly outbreaks of uncivil war too as fingers are angrily pointed at the part-timers, the players, the boardroom and the pricing structure with every new Riverside record low. Someone must be to blame.
Now, after a season of relatively poor goal-lite fare on home turf – and that is being generous – and the first price rises in six years for non early birds, season ticket sales are believed to have slipped back to about the 10,500 mark and that will signal a renewed bout of belly-aching and tortured guilty moral mathematics.
We all know that for less attractive fixtures (and there are plenty in this league, and increasingly we are one of them) and for midweek games in wet weather, and on those now sporadic small screen showdowns that many season ticket holders don’t go. And that there is very little walk up. And that few visitors make the journey.
So naturally there are widespread mutterings about a criminal crash through that symbolic and psychologically important 10k glass trapdoor towards damning four digit gates. To hear the more alarmist and hysterical doom-mongers the club are in a terminal decline and experiencing a slump never seen before. Oh no! We are all going to die! Heads must roll!
But it is time for Boro fans to stop beating themselves up over crowds. There are external factors beyond your personal control or responsibility at work here. It’s the weight of history.
Far from the current dip being the expression of an unprecedented cataclysmic crash, current gates are bang on what you would expect.
Yes, measured against the mightily impressive monolithic matchday mathematics of 30,000-plus sell-outs in the glory years, some of last season’s crowds of 14,000 are a stark slap across the chops. And some of next season’s threaten to be more so.
But that bulging golden decade of a brand new ground jammed with zealous Red Book revolutionaries – and more on the waiting list – watching a star-studded team was the statistical blip not the norm and it has distorted our cultural expectations on crowds.
Put into historical context, the gates graph is exactly where the past would predict. In fact, it is slightly above where history suggests.
Last season there was much mandatory mumbling about crowds. That is natural. The long hangover from relegation and the backlash against the ill-fated Strachan cul-de-sac was a backdrop to a frustrating season that fizzled out at home. After the initial feelgood factor injected by the return of Mogga much of the season felt flat.
Yet despite that, and in defiance of the bar stool and Geordicentric Legends consensus, crowds were actually UP. By more than 1,200. Yes, looking at the gate figures from every season since the war, for all the talk of a club in the doldrums, it is clear Boro are actually pulling in gates HIGHER than their historic average in the second tier would suggest
In the post war years Boro have spent 31 seasons in Division Two with an overall average of just 16,365. The figure last season was 17,729. That is above the historic norm by a healthy margin. To put it in perspective, more people watched Tony Mowbray’s team grind through last term than turned out for goal machine Brian Clough’s last season. Or for the Bruce Rioch and Lennie Lawrence promotion campaigns in this division.
And even that second tier average is slightly inflated by the quirk of a promotion campaign in 1998 – the Merson year – backed by righteous anger at the three-point deduction and a sell-out season ticket crowd of 29,999. Without that the historic mean would be a lot lower.
Generally Boro have man marked that average figure just over 16,000 very closely, although there have been two obvious historical deviations from the norm.
The first six terms the club spent in division two between 1955 and 1960 noticeably bucked the trend – the average in that spell was a touch over 22,000 – but that was at the tail end of a post war boom when games everywhere enjoyed bumper crowds and when at Ayresome Park Clough was banging in 40 goals a term.
In contrast the four bleak years in the early ’80s distorted the figures at the other end of the spectrum – the average then was 7,442 with an all-time low of 5,135 in 1984-85 – but that era reflected a crisis club plunging towards oblivion, when Teesside was ravaged by recession and the national game in an historic slump with hooliganism and crumbling grounds driving down crowds everywhere. yes, even at Newcastle.
It should be noted too that the rise and fall in Boro’s historic gates are not aberration peculiar to Teesside but broadly track national trends closely. The game has had plenty of ups and down from the demob boom when there was little else to do in austerity Britain through slumps sparked by economic crisis and terrace violence and upturns with the World Cup dividend in 1966 and Euro boom in 1996.
In all those undulations and over 31 seasons of second shelf slump, in seven years Boro’s gate has been within 500 of the divisional average. Another six have been within 1,500. Four more within 2,500. We have kept pace with the national music.
Yes, Boro gates were well above the league norm in those three years in the late 50s when Cloughie was rattling in goals and staking his claim for a statue. And above the divisional average too for a spell in the late 60s when the Big John Hickton and John O’Rourke had the Ayresome Angels were in full voice and there was still a marked promotion dividend after 1966-67.
Naturally, promotion pushes are the biggest single factor in spikes in figures. In 1973-74, the Charlton’s Champions campaign, Boro were 10,000 above the divisional norm while gates in the Robson/Merson magic campaign were double the second tier average. There were smaller but still noticeable moves above the dotted line too for the Rioch Revolution and even the Colin Todd play-off push. And both third division seasons too were also well above the mean.
The lesson is clear: crowds are sensitive to success and that which division Boro play in – and their chances of winning it – are the key factor. Right now we are in the second tier and crowds are almost exactly midway between our historic average and the current divisional norm. We are on track. gates are not being determined by some peculiar topical crisis, just the underlying currents of history.
So, let’s not get embroiled in squabbles over crowds this term. We have nothing to feel guilty about. The crowds will be back. In time. With success.
***This is the Early Bird ft T-Styles remix of this week’s Big Picture column.
Squad Shirt Semiotics: It’s A Lottery
NUMEROLOGY: ancient systems, traditions or beliefs in mystical or esoteric hidden relationships between particular numbers and physical objects, powers or living things; systems regarded as pseudomathematics by modern scientists. Often associated with the occult.
Boro’s new squad shirt numbers have been released to the usual babble of conspiratorial two-plus-twoing and fevered speculation heavy with inference over the symbolism of the changes in exactly how the matchday laundry lines-up.
So, are the Black Arts of the necromancer at work? Scott McDonald may feel the powerful dark hex of the cursed number 27 weighing him down as he contemplates his status in the coming season. And he won’t need to search too far for hidden messages.
The top earning busy Aussie deep lying forward has nailed down the sacred number seven shirt in the past two seasons after arriving as a first team fixture under Gordon Strachan. He kept that place, when fit, under Mogga. Now, judging by the semiotics of the shirt sequence, he has been shuffled off to the orbital outer reaches of the squad.
A shirt number that screams “automatic choice” has been brusquely taken off him and he has slipped 20 places down the pop parade to take up the , er, famous 27 jersey, that points and whispers “your days here are numbered sonny” slyly behind your back.
Or, it could be more generously spun as saying 2+7 = 9, the cultural signature numeral of the true striker. We’ve done that before when Viduka and Hasselbaink argued over the number nine amd 1+8 came into the equation as a prestige berth.
It has been mundanely suggested that McDonald wore 27 when he first went to Celtic before being promoted to No 10. That may be the case – it is, I checked – but even if he has chosen that for sentimental reasons it begs the question as to why he didn’t do it in the past two seasons and besides, it is hard to believe a footballer – by nature an egocentric beast – would willingly surrender a badge of first XI kudos so cheaply.
McDonald’s number seven has been handed instead to Grant Leadbitter, Mogga’s first signing of the summer and a player who looks set to take up residence in the first XI. That could well be a signficant reshuffle.
The numbers dished out to the new boys are interesting. George Friend has been given the No 4 shirt suggesting a notional starting place rather than a figure high in the teens that would convey that he is just cover for Joe Bennett. On the other flank, newly resigned Justin Hoyte retains No 2, hinting he is the first choice while new old boy and right back rival Stuart Parnaby is given No 21.
Emmanuel Ledesma gets 11, which ominously was last worn (briefly) by ill-fated loanee Captain Dragback Adam Hammill. Flying left winger Muzzy Carayol gets 19, the number once worn by wing wizard Stewart Downing but last year glimpsed only fleetingly on the back of Andy Halliday. The young Scot may think his chances of action have improved slightly this term as he has inched one position up the rankings to 18. Only seven more years for a start.
And Jonathan Woodgate has opted for 39. That wildly out of sequence figure must be a special request. Possibly it is the number of games he is targeting this term. Or has played since his last stint at the Riverside.
The first team new boys line up at numbers 4; 7; 11; 19; 21; and 39 any or all of which may or may not have any deep tactical or status related significance – but either way, that’s my lottery numbers sorted this week.
There is a little bit of tinkering elsewhere in the squad – Arca is back at No 20 after a year at 18, Curtis Main nudges up from 25 to 23 and Adam Reach from a fringey 32 to a plausible player looking 24 – but the only other big mover is Lukas Jutkiewicz, up from 30 to 17. With a bullet. And No 12 is unassigned, leaving room in the rosta for a new second string shot-stopper. Jayson Lutwiler then.
If nothing else you can go and endorse your hero on your own shirt now. As a rule I would never advise anyone to get any name other than their own emblazoned across their shoulders. If nothing else you know you will not be flogged in January.
I’M BACK at work after 10 long days off….. YESSSS! Scunthorpe on Wednesday; Bury on Saturday. Boro are back! Bring it on.
That means it is time to step up a gear ready for the new season – you lot as well as myself and the team. So come on then, it is time to take the flimsiest of evidence of new faces and fixtures and faint impressions of the supposed strength of the rest of the division and impose your world view on it to predict how the season will pan out.
So let’s give those punditry muscles a work out. It’s only a bit of fun. It’s not as if anyone will write down anything you say and later use it as evidence against you in a court of internet law. Much.
Personally I think now Mogga has a squad that more accurately reflects his ethos, this season will be ‘better’ in terms of the balance and approach of the squad and the kind of football being played – especially at home – but I also think it is a tougher division this year with two or three more genuine contenders taking shape plus the usual suspects and the top flight refugees.
The bookies have us as tenth favourites at between 16s and 22s. That’s tempting. I know why Leeds and Forest have attracted money and are above us (new owners) and understand why Blackburn are there too after being in the top flight last season but I can’t see any of those realistically challenging. Which puts us in the same seventh spot we finished in last term. I can see that.
There can be no automatic assumption that even if we are better we will improve on where we were in the table last time. It will not be plain sailing. I expect a more problematic campaign this time. Last season there was a sizzling start followed by a gradual loss of momentum and cutting edge as injuries mounted and the opposition got wise. This time round I expect less of a sprint start but more solidity and consistency.
That said, last term started with low expectations. This time there will be more pressure as Mogga has his own men and will be expected to improve. That may be difficult as the slope gets steeper dramatically from base camp in seventh spot.
There may be a few more blips and slips and set-backs along the way so supporters will need to show more nerve as the campaign unfolds. I can see more of a slow-burning season as the squad gradually gels before Boro settle in the nip-and-tuck pack just outside the play-off places. From there what happens is anyone’s guess.
My own is that after some sticky spells a Teesside Spring surge will see Boro, as last term, needing a result on the last day to barge into the top six. That last game is at Sheffield Wednesday. which should scare some battle scarred old school campaigners.
I’ll elaborate on this later but for now, you can get on with your own forecasting. So, go on, nail your colours to the mast: where will Boro finish, what will be the tone of the campaign, who will be the key players and flops and who are the teams to fear?