THE RIVERSIDE crowd is paunchy, greying and getting a little bit grumpy. Sit down in front there son, I can't be standing with my sciatica. We haven't quite got to the stage where the kiosks sell cocoa but the club shop already sells those sensible gifts beloved of the elderly: hip flasks, car blankets, humbugs, cut glass decanters and cross stitch patterns. Can those fur-lined zip-up slippers in club colours be far away?
We have long been aware of this demographic trend in the crowd and have commented on it here in the past but now the excellent David Conn has put some figures on it. In an article in the Guardian on Why Football Is No Longer a Young Man's Game he points to timely new research on the profile of the Premiership crowd that the clubs should bear in mind when they come to draw up their pricing policies over the next few years.
There was a time when football was a rite of passage for working class young men. There was a socially defined route from the wide-eyed zest of the Boys End to the beered up seething passionate sea of the Holgate then on to the comfortable cynicism of the Chicken Run or the semi-retirement of the main stand seats.
The cheap end, the popular end, the kop was almost always packed with the youth, the noisiest, most volatile and most zealous element, the beating heart of the ground. It was packed with gangs of strutting cocksure lads who paid their quid or two and who came to stand together, sing together, enjoy baiting the players with caustic comments and laughing. It was a vibrant social experience at pocket money prices.
But the gangs of the lads from the estates were long ago priced out. Ticket prices have risen steadily from £8 on the Holgate in the last year at Ayresome to a cheapest £31 a ticket for the causual adult fan going to watch a category A match. That is a big chunk out of a small wage packet when there are so many other pressing demands to pay for car, trendy clothes, a night out clubbing or a sunshine break.
Few teenagers, students or young people in their first jobs can afford £30 a ticket, or £400 for a season ticket, even with some clubs' credit deals, at 19.9% APR.
According to the Premier League's most recent supporters' survey, last season just 9%, less than one in 10 supporters, was under 24. The average age of a Premier League fan was 43, part of the balding army who fell in love with football in the 1970s.
It is not just the money that has forced the young lads out. The season ticket sell out at the Riverside in the first few, most exciting years effectively locked out a generation. There were no seats for them to take up. And when seats did become available they were in ones and twos dotted around mainly in the expensive areas. The cheapest North and South Stand diehards were going nowhere and if new fans wanted to squeeze in it would be alongside the flask and blanket brigade where there would be no collective upsurges of noisy passion, no magical induction into the electric terrace culture, no standing and singing. But plenty of mature groups sneaking away early to beat the traffic
The only times when the youth have flooded in in vast numbers and got the chance to gather together have been for cup games when the tyranny of the season ticket is broken and there is a seating free-for all. The cup clashes with Charlton, Steaua, Basel were all fantastic nights of powerful emotion ... and they were all games where the average age of the crowd had been slashed as dramatically as the ticket prices. It was in stark contrast to the normal day at the Riverside where an ageing crowd have grown comfy in their seats.
It is time to galvanise the crowd and time for the clubs to take radical action. Boro took the first steps last season with a new pricing structure that cut prices for the under 9s, the under 16s and under 18s - but they are all tied to kids who go to games with their parents. There is a need to harness the unconditional passion and zest of groups of lads who want to stand together away from restraint of their parents.
It may be time to look at an experiment of areas of unreserved season ticket seating behind each goal to allow groups of likeminded singers to gather. They would still be mainly season ticket holders so security and public order would not be compromised and numbers would not exceed the capacity in the area but those who got in early could get together with their mates. It would increase the likelyhood of concentrated areas of passion.
Another possibility would be to free up areas for new fans to climb aboard the Boro bandwagon at cut-prices. The club could do this easily by moving the away fans to say the South West Upper - the numbers are generally small and could easily be contained - leaving the South Stand area behind that goal available for a real new Holgate, an area dedicated to trainee diehards. It would need to be policed of course. All that testosterone unleashed.
Existing season ticket holders who may be displaced would naturally complain and need to be pacified and persuaded that it was for the benefit of all. And it will be. Atmosphere is central to the matchday product and anything than can nurture it and harness it most be a big plus. The conservative staid straitjacket of a decade of fixed seating as much as the ageing of the crowd has helped throw a shroud of silence over the Riverside most weeks.
With the TV windfall the money is there, with dipping crowds the spare capacity is there and football is starting to examine pricing and the product we must hope the political will is there too. It would be brillinat to see Boro at the forefront of a new movement to expand the fanbase and making the game younger, noisier and accessible to all.