For the second season in a row, the empty seats at the Riverside are proving more of a talking point than the football played in front of them. Last autumn, Gareth Southgate was dismissed after the Middlesbrough chairman, Steve Gibson, became concerned at the falling attendances that accompanied the club's relegation from the Premier League.
Twelve months on, and the figures are even worse. Yesterday's attendance of 14,633 was the lowest for a league game in the Riverside's 15-year history, beating the previous low, against Swansea last season, by almost 2,000.
The Teesside economy has been hit particularly hard by the recession and the television cameras were present yesterday, offering a cut-price alternative for stay-at-home fans. Nevertheless, the falling crowds are a concern.
Gordon Strachan, the Middlesbrough manager, said: "I've been looking at TV all weekend and there's big gaps everywhere. In an area like this, where unemployment is huge, you're not going to get people turning up to a game that's on TV.
"The recession's hitting hard now, especially in this area. It's only footballers who seem to have money. It's a business that just seems to have completely ignored the recession. "
Of course, supporters are more likely to turn up if they know they are going to be entertained, something that is far from guaranteed at the Riverside at the moment.
Strachan said: "It was two nervous sides desperate not to get beaten. The managers were desperate, the supporters were desperate, the players were desperate, and the game was desperate as well."
An insipid first half certainly fitted that description. Sheffield United striker Ched Evans shot at Jason Steele's legs, before Middlesbrough winger Tarmo Kink shot narrowly over the crossbar from 25 yards, but the bulk of the opening period was a messy combination of poor control and passing.
The second was not much better, but at least it contained a goal. Scott McDonald flicked on David Wheater's clearance and, when defender Chris Morgan slipped, it afforded Kris Boyd a clear run on goal. The Scotland international, who arrived on a free transfer from Rangers this summer, duly opened his account with a low strike.
"Chris wins you ten games a season," said Gary Speed, the Sheffield United manager. "It's just one of those things."
Middlesbrough (4-4-2): Steele; Bates, Wheater, McManus, Kilgallon; Kink (Arca, 46), Robson, Bailey, Halliday (Taylor, 78); Boyd (Lita, 70), McDonald. Substitutes not used: Coyne (gk), Hoyte, L Williams, Miller.
Sheffield United (4-2-3-1): Simonsen; Nosworthy (Quinn ,76), Morgan, Bartley, Taylor; Montgomery, Ertl; Ward, Britton, Cresswell; Evans (Bogdanovic, 66). Substitutes not used: Aksalu (gk), James, Chappell, Kozluk, Yeates.
Referee: D Whitestone (Northampton).Reuse content