A so-called ‘second wave’ may be sweeping in with all the inevitability of a biting Teesside breeze, but it did not stop 1,000 Middlesbrough ticket holders seizing the chance to provide socially-distanced support for their side at the Riverside Stadium.
The grim coronavirus prognosis has hit close to home in recent days: Neil Warnock and an unnamed first-team player were absent having contracted the virus, while, just a goal-kick up the coast, stricter lockdown measures included the inability to associate outside one’s own household bubble.
These Boro fans might have been prohibited from breaching the ‘rule of six’ on their own front lawns, but nothing was going to stop them coming together relatively en-masse to register their collective frustration over the errant aim of Marcus Tavernier’s right foot.
For many of these fans, however, an expectation of excellence was hardly the point. Forty-six year old Nick Bonner, who won the ticket lottery along with his mother Shirley and daughter Caitlyn, admitted: “We’d rather come and lose than stay away and win – that sounds really bad but it’s Boro.
“The last couple of years we’ve been cursing our Saturdays, thinking we’re going to get beaten again. But when you can’t come you realise how much you miss it, and that all those highs and lows are part and parcel of following a club.”
Obligatory hand-sanitising greeted the fans who trickled through the Riverside Stadium turnstiles and, while the concourse bars and betting shops remained shuttered, they were clearly intent on making up for the lack of numbers which made it, technically, the lowest paying attendance for a competitive first-team match in the club’s history.
Boro were one of seven, from an initial list of 10, to edge open their doors as part of an EFL pilot scheme which had not been without its early teething problems, with Luton, Hull and Morecambe all forced to belatedly withdraw due to safety concerns.
Despite their manager being forced to conduct team affairs from his home in Cornwall, there were few such worries among the Boro fans. “It was the worst feeling in the world knowing we couldn’t come back to football,” said Joss, 24, from Thornaby. “With all the precautions we had no hesitation in applying to get the tickets.”
Coralled into the 10,000-capacity West Stand, the Boro fans appeared intent on expressing those pent-up frustrations in vocal fashion, whipping up the kind of enthusiasm that eclipsed much of the atmosphere engendered by last season’s three-quarter full houses as their club flirted with relegation to League One.
At times it was as if those fans who had struck lucky were so intent on creating a positive environment that they could shrug off Bournemouth’s back-heeled opener as simply another acceptable ingredient of the essential Saturday anguish.
But, as the game drifted on, familiar frustrations began to emerge, chiefly aimed at referee Matt Donohue, with opinions on his alleged shortcomings cascading all the more clearly down the sparsely-populated stands.
When Marcus Browne shattered the increasing tension with his 80th-minute equaliser, the roar could surely have been heard in all those local lockdown hotspots.
“It’s about everything that builds up to the good times,” insisted Bonner. “To be able to come back and watch our team – that’s the really great thing about today.”