Losing The Battle For Hearts And Minds?
GORDON Strachan is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of Boro supporters.
Under pressure as his team struggles to overcome its "fundamental flaws," he has scored a PR own goal with his churlish 'take drugs and drink' quip that - whatever the intention - has handed frustrated fans a stick to beat him with.
As if they need another one!
Repeated routs on the road have left a season in which pre-season title favourites Boro were expected to deliver teetering on a knife-edge.
Despite the biggest summer spending in the Championship, Strachan has not arrested the slump in fortunes that began in the Premiership and saw Gareth Southgate's side slither through the trap door.
In fact, the same fatal flaws have been evident - and some dangerous new ones have been added in - while if anything, results have been worse.
And despite a decent return at home - only one defeat since Christmas in the league - a year of distinctly average, soul-sapping displays at the Riverside have prompted a massive crisis of faith, a collapse in confidence made unavoidablly visible by a steadily spreading rash of empty red seats.
The club seems gripped by a creeping paralysis. Belief is seeping away. Morale is at rock bottom. Doom-mongers and Chickenrunners now rule the roost and the once triumphant rose-tinted ra-ras are conspicuous by their absence. The airwaves, cyber-space and the underpass chuntering are all dominated by dissenters.
Even Boro's Foam Finger In Chief, Alistair Brownlee, is struggling to maintain his institutional upbeat optimism in the face of the relentless emotional erosion the fan base has been subjected to by an alarming four years of decline since Eindhoven.
The Premiership party is over, the star names have been flogged off in a desperate bid to balance the books and we find ourselves treading water in the Championship in a new age of austerity. The club has been in reverse for years and having slithered backwards to the square one of the mid-90s it feels as if it could just as easily keep going for another decade as accelerate confidently back up the table.
No wonder then that fans are nervous, tetchy and disillusioned and that confidence in the leadership, direction and stability of the club is more fragile than at any time since liquidation. It is a time of heightened sensitivities and raw nerves.
So against a turbulent backdrop coloured from a vivid palette of deep disappointment, broken dreams and bitter recriminations there is absolutely no room for comments which throw petrol on the flames.
And the last thing the manager needs is to hand another recruiting trump-card to the rapidly growing opposition.
Yet that is exactly what he is in danger of doing with his cultivated hostility to the media management side of the job.
And this at a time when the fans are crying out for inspirational leadership and a clear vision they can believe in.
Clearly Strachan is uncomfortable with the media side of the job and does not like cameras and microphones. You can appreciate that - but he has had 15 years in the dug-out to learn to deal with an aspect of management that there is no escaping from.
Even in the Championship there is the constant scrutiny of 24 hour sports TV, the club's own website, local and national press, cameras and radio and cyberspace too. Trial by exposure is something every manager must face.
Strachan's media persona is far from engaging. He himself admits he doesn't like what he sees on TV and you must have sympathy for anyone reluctantly thrust into the limelight . His body language is a shield of antagonistic bristling, there is little eye-contact and his replies rarely engage with the questions except on the most perfunctory level.
Given an opportunity he will duck or deflect a question or respond with a barbed
comment as part of his defence mechanism when under pressure. And to be fair he is far more relaxed and open when the microphones and cameras are off.
But customer relations, PR, marketing, "spinning" and salemanship are as much a part of modern management of the football "industry" as delivering on the pitch and he will be judged just as harshly on that as on performances. It is an area that can make or break a manager with the public.
And the post-match interview is key to that. Especially when it is given to the local radio. It is one of the few times he gets to speak directly to his own club's supporters unfiltered by a reporter's subjective opinion or the edit suite or a national hack's paper's agenda.
This key interview comes before people have read websites and newspapers or seen the blipvert highlights on the television that will soon create an indelible impression of the game. It is a chance to praise or criticise, explain or mitigate. It is a time to set a game in context or point out a key moment. It is an opportunity to shape the agenda.
A well articulated explanation of what has just happened can colour the tone of the post-match analysis in pubs and clubs, on the phone-in and across the blogosphere. It can buoy loyalists and help mobilise the waverers behind the team. It can sell tickets.
Not to take that opportunity is self-defeating. It is cutting off your nose to spite your face.
The post-match interview is about winning friends and influencing people; about creating a positive atmosphere around the club; about putting context on a result that will be otherwise twisted to suit the political agendas of the tabloid rumourati and the domestic knee-jerkers; and crucially at a time of falling crowds, it is about persuading the waverers sat at home to come next week.
Why would people be motivated to pay to watch the next game when the manager barks that he is "not interested" in explaining what has just happened? How could they be inspired to come back to the Riverside when the boss admits there is "something fuundamentally wrong" and that he doesn't know - or not prepared to say - what it is?
The post-match interview is a window on the world of the club and right now it isn't a particularly attractive view.
The manager - stood in full view in that shop window - comes across in various degrees over the weeks as disinterested, spiky, sarcastic, powerless, enigmatic, angry, rude, bullying, arrogant and evasive and at times it appears he is trying to take out his obvious frustrations out on the poor hapless soul asking the questions.
Now, you can say "ask better questions" but that is to miss the fundamental point of the post-match interview. It isn't about penetrating interrogation aimed at finding a deep philosophical insight into the psyche of the boss. It isn't Paxman grilling a cabinet minister on public policy. It is just a way of teeing him up for a free advert.
I don't understand why he thinks that is a confrontational situation. It isn't. It is a PR open goal he repeatedly spurns, preferring instead to be frosty, enigmatic or glib.
And I don't understand why it appears to be a personal duel between the manager and the reporter. It isn't. Generally the reporter probably couldn't care less what the Strachan thinks but just wants his interview on tape or on air before the deadline.
Ultimately the reporter is just holding the mic and giving the manager easy cues, and acting as a conduit for the public. And when the boss is rude or dismissive or abrupt to their proxy, whatever the intention, that ire is aimed indirectly at the armchair audience.
And the public sense that, hence the switchboard melting down as irate - and insulted - listeners rang in from home or from the car-park fuming at what was taken as a slight.
On Saturday, after the Five Live reporter was also given similar short shrift, even fans of other clubs rang in to the national phone-in to complain! That takes some doing
Now clearly the throwaway line was a joke. He wasn't really advocating heavy use of opiates, disco biscuits or hash as a healthy alternative to the pressures of watching Boro from the dug-out. Or the seats.
But the time for levity is when you are looking down the table from top spot, not when your team have gifted two points to a side who had lost all their previous away games and not when fans are already angry and emotional and worried and looking for something to unload their frustrations on.
Fergie can be brusque because he has delivered in spades but when your team is failing and serious questions are being asked about results and performances and league position or about the bosses' tactical ability and team selection then an abrupt, dismissive and disrespectful approach to perfectly legitimate questions does not help.
It just offers angry and frustrated supporters another stick to beat the club with. It widens the chasm another few feet at a time when the club desperately needs unity and a shared sense of direction. It adds another line to the lengthening charge sheet to be reeled off in every heated argument over the qualities and prospects of the boss. And those arguments are raging across Teesside right now.
At times of crisis the valid questions being asked by concerned supporters can not be shrugged off with a brusque "not interested" or a quirky one-liner. Not without expecting a backlash anyway.
Just ask Steve 'magnificent' McClaren or Gareth 'lessons learned' Southgate about how public pronouncements can quickly become a weapon to be used against you when results are going badly.
The club are losing the battle for hearts and minds. They have been for years if the truth is told. Whenever a senior figure opens their mouth in public now they seem to put their foot in it. From Keith Lamb saying the club were "relaxed" about losing season ticket holders to Steve Gibson casually insulting half of his fanbase by saying everyone in Stockton supports the Mackems to the cack-handed letter dished out to passionate fans telling them not to cheer so often or so loud... and every time what passed for a very begrudged apology had to be practically extracted under torture.
Let's be honest, it isn't the smoothest of spin machines. That isn't Gordon Strachan's fault. Neither is the immediate history of the club that has left supporters emotionally raw. But nevertheless, it is his problem to deal with. Whether he is interested or not.
THIS IS a remix of this week's Big Picture column in the old school steam driven paper Gazette. There is also a new bit on the backlash which you can read here.