In truth the majority of Boro fans would probably willingly take a first season scrambled survival right now. That shows how quickly we are collectively rewiring ourselves for what will be a very testing Premier baptism of fire.
The Championship promotion pressure cooker was demanding and draining for fans, a gruelling emotional assault course with no let up that was excruciating for the final few months. Next season may prove to be just as psychologically intense but fought out at the opposite end of the table and in a very different mental landscape.
Boro – the manager, the players, the club and the supporters – will need to quickly bridge a culture gap and adjust to some harsh new realities.
Last term was spent trying to win every week. Next season will be about trying not to lose.
Boro have had a win rate of over 50% for the last two seasons under Aitor Karanka.
Last season Boro won 26 of their 46 games, which works out at a very impressive 56.5%. At home the record is staggering: Karanka’s side won 16 out of 23 games at the Riverside, an amazing win ratio of 69.5%.
Boro lost just twice in the league at home last term and only three times in the previous campaign. That has had a marked effect on the collective supporting psyche. In the past two years it has been easy to support Boro. Especially at home. In fact, it has been a joy.
Yes, at times it didn’t go to plan. It was frustrating when Boro dominated but couldn’t finish off weaker opposition and there were a lot of long hauls and late goals. But they usually got there. Not everyone agreed with the shape and style and selections and there were moments of doubt but overall it was a successful season and the noise and colour and atmosphere at the Riverside echoed to that.
Next season could be very different, statistically and emotionally. Next year could be a nervous grind with hard-fought welcome wins far from being the norm.
We will have to be mentally prepared for that challenge.
Optimistic Boro fans will be hoping to go up to the top flight and “do a Watford.” Of the three promoted sides the Hornets did the best. They got off to a solid start, stuck by the style that got them up and flirted with upper mid-table before running out of steam and finishing in “the comfort zone.” You’d take that all day long.
But if Boro were to match that it would mean a dramatic reduction in the Riverside points haul we have grown used to. Watford finished 13th with 45 points, a casual eight clear of the drop zone in a campaign that has to be hailed a resounding success – but they only won six games at home. Hornets fans saw six wins and six draws and their side – promoted in a goal rush – netted only 20 times.
That is a win ratio of “just” 31%. And that’s good for a promoted side.
Bournemouth went up as champions, stuck to their principles and played expansive, attacking football and won a lot of friends – but not a lot of games as they found top flight defences far harder to penetrate. They only clocked up five league victories at Dean Court and drew five more to finish in 16th place with 42 points and a win ratio at home of 28%.
Sunderland stayed up – just – with similar stats as their basement battling purgatory went on. Sam Allardyce’s side won just six home games (and just three away) and lost 17 overall to just stay up by two points. They finished 17th, which Aitor and most of us would think is a success if we matched that next year.
People will point to Leicester as a possible model and it would be brilliant to go anywhere near that fairytale – but in their first season up the Foxes won six and drew five at home, scored just 23 and only just pulled off a late great escape.
There has been a lot of construction work going on at the ground as Boro renew, revamp and reconfigure the stadium so it is fit for the purpose for the Premier League.
Boro fans will need to do the same: we need to rewire ourselves and steel ourselves for the new challenge. Success will be built on performances at home but the parameters of what we should expect will change markedly.
The win ratio will drop from our promotion pushing norm of over 50% to the survival mark of around 28-30%. That will be a massive culture shock. We will need to get used to a rhythm of winning one in four and hopefully drawing one or two of the other three rather than expecting victory in every other game.
If Boro can match or better Watford’s record of winning six and drawing six at home then that will put down solid the foundations of a decent season – but that will mean budgeting to lose seven and that is just about one in three rather than one in three months.
And that requires a radically different mindset from supporters.
If Boro fans rise to the challenge they can make the Riverside rock and be a central to the story. The season will have a completely different narrative but there is no reason it can’t be fun.
Boro are back after a seven-year exile and there is a lot of lost time to make up. Battling against the big boys home-and-away will sprinkle some fairy dust on the fixtures and no doubt fans will raise themselves for those glamour games but it will in the bread-and-butter matches where our fate will be decided.
Last season our anxieties at home came when Boro were turning the screw and not killing off teams. Next term the palpitations are more likely to be prompted by a last gasp Alamo effort as plucky Boro dig in to defend a slender lead or a clean sheet to claim a precious point. And the team will need the fans behind them just as much.
And not just against the elite. It will be just as tough against “the likes of” teams: West Brom, Swansea, Stoke, Palace. They may not be giants but they have three, five, seven years head start when it comes to investment in quality, experience and nous and they will see Boro as one of their most likely away wins.
So supporters have a vital role to play in making those games as hard as possible for the visitors. We have to make the Riverside a crackling cauldron next season, an eye-catching and ear-bursting hostile arena that cows the visitors and urges on our heroes.
Boro fans showed last season they can have a visible and audible impact on the unfolding game, that they can drive the team on and leave neutral spectators awestruck by the spectacle. We need to be doing that again.
Especially when Boro are hanging on against “the likes of” Watford.
**This is a remix of a bit in the paper while I was away.
And here’s a bit I did today looking at Seven Things Boro Fans Can Expect This Season – home defeats, televised touch line bust-ups, a campaign for an England call-up and the press trying to sell our players in January.