Over the course of this little miniseries we’ve been doing, we’ve taken a look at some big problems facing the Boro that would take time, money and input from people that are far more qualified in terms of footballing experience and acumen than us lot to fix.
It’s quite easy to sit in the pub and talk about how we could improve recruitment or develop a long-lasting structure behind the scenes, highlighting examples of other teams doing it “the right way”, without any thought for financial constraints or without any real knowledge of what is actually happening at the football club.
If it was really that easy, we probably wouldn’t be in the pub before the match. We’d all be in the directors box. Socially distanced, of course but we’re not. The things we’ve discussed so far are difficult to put in place successfully.
That makes this final part of How To Solve A Problem Like The Boro pretty damning because it is by far the easiest problem to fix. It doesn’t take headline making transfers, a director of football, an all-encompassing scouting network or a lot of time to remedy the issue. It’s something that shouldn’t take a great deal of effort to sort out.
It’s something that shouldn’t actually even be a problem in the first place but it’s something that needs to be a priority for the club.
Middlesbrough Football Club needs to rekindle the connection between the club and its supporters and they need to start doing it quickly.
A connection. What does that even mean? Aren’t football fans always connected to their club? Well, yes they are really. If you support a football team, it can shape your very existence. People’s lives revolve around their football club.
How many holidays or family plans are organised around the fixture list every year? How much money do you sink into following your football club every season on the latest home top, season tickets and away days? How many hours have you spent up and down the motorway following your team, to the point you can rank every service station in country? Wetherby is the best, by the way.
Yet, there’s a fine line between the romanticised life of being a football supporter where you’re the lifeblood of your team, where the club is a major factor in every decision you make, and you feel like your team makes up part of your identity to simply feeling like a customer and an afterthought. A number on the club’s database. That’s the line MFC have crossed in the eyes of many over the past few years.
Take the current season ticket situation for example. The club are in an unenviable position due to the regulations placed on them by the Government as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nobody is arguing that fact, but the way they have handled communication around the situation has been shocking. Any reassurances that season ticket holders who haven’t yet renewed have been seeking have not been published yet and the season starts in less than a month.
Some individuals who’ve braved being on hold to the ticket office for hours have been given some guidance on what is going to be on offer for those unable to renew and Rob Nicholls of FMTTM has been a greater source of information than the club itself. If that information is true, why hasn’t it been published by the club? It takes minimal effort to put a press release out. If it isn’t true, then why are fans being told this?
Should limitations on capacities at sports grounds remain in place throughout next season, thousands of fans, season ticket holders and match-to-match buyers alike are going to have spent over 18 months without setting foot in the Riverside Stadium. If the broadcasters don’t allow clubs to stream games as was the case following the restart, it might be a struggle to even watch the team.
For as much as people will talk about being “loyal” and “diehard” fans, eighteen months is a long time in which to form new habits. Maybe people start taking those family holidays a bit more regularly. Maybe that money usually set aside for season tickets and away games goes towards a new hobby to keep you occupied. Maybe you *really* get into train-spotting instead of jumping on them at six in the morning for a London away game. Maybe.
This is why MFC need to start pulling everyone together and reconnecting with the fan base.
It’s all well and good posting funny comebacks on Twitter and copying various independent fan accounts with “on this day” highlights, but clear communication is key to keeping people on board. Not splintered mixed messages to individuals that get reinterpreted or incorrectly explained online.
Exciting news about the team needs to be put out in an engaging manner on the club’s channels not announced by Steve Gibson in his hi-vis on a building site. Unless it was a nod to the need to rebuild, then fair play.
Speaking of Mr Gibson, now is the time when the club needs to be as transparent as possible. There needs to be regular dialogue from the higher-ups on what is happening behind the scenes.
Not giving away secrets or transfer fees but a bit more than a two minute clip on BBC Tees at the end of the season. Gibbo isn’t a media man, he’s admitted it as much himself but as it stands he is the face of the club. He’s given himself an easy get out this year with appointing Neil Warnock with all of his one-liners and brutal honesty but that may not be the same if the team starts to struggle.
If you pop Stuart Webber’s name into YouTube or Google, there’s several in-depth interviews with Norwich’s official channel and fan sites discussing recruitment strategy, results and future plans.
After spending an hour watching and reading some of those, I feel like I know more about Norwich City in 2020 than I do about my own team. That’s not right.
There’s a number of good Boro fan sites and podcasts that club officials can collaborate with and push out those messages to help make MFC feel more inclusive for its supporters. Tap into local culture and keep up the fantastic work via the MFC Foundation to engage with the people of the town.
The Canaries had a terrible season but looking at the comments and feedback to Webber’s frank and honest assessments of the season it seems to have lifted spirits more than you’d expect at a newly relegated side. If the club are still hoping to create a long-term vision then they need to be open about it and show some of the things that are being put into place to keep people on board when things stutter.
Of course, this all comes second fiddle to winning and on-pitch success. Winning football matches is the best thing to create a buzz around a club and town. The reason people hold the Karanka era and those players who reached the play-off final and achieved promotion in such high regard is simple. We were winning a lot of football matches. People post “I want the 2015/16 Boro back” because they won. There is no other reason.
All of those things we look back at fondly about those squads and that time only matter as much because we won. Would they really have been christened Aitor’s Handsome Reds if they’d finished mid-table?
What is more, that team achieved their expectations. Tony Pulis’s side never did that. That’s why the monotonous football became a problem. If we’d been top, a lot of people would have revelled in the role as the EFL’s biggest shithouses. You can’t do that when you’re not even in the playoffs with a Champions League winner in midfield and one of the biggest wage bills in the league.
Football teams can’t rely on winning every week to keep their supporters engaged and behind the cause, no matter how much you want to say promotion is the aim every year. This is where clear communication, engaging content and transparency really come into play. There was a lot of talk about a golden thread last year. The most important one is the link between fans, team and club.
That’s the real golden thread.
Photo Credits: Gazette Live, MFC, Hartlepool Mail