The Madness and Depression of Football Fans

The Madness and Depression of Football Fans
February 24, 2015 Paul Tomkins

By Paul Tomkins.

This is an article that is nominally about football, but is just as much about the pressures of modern life and the plight of men (in particular, but not exclusively). This is both a very personal account and an observation of how others behave. It is about being a football fan, but also the impact of social media on our appreciation of life (and sport), and how constantly striving for more can lead to increased unhappiness – even if you attain it.

Football fans – and here I naturally include myself – act as if they are mentally ill. It’s a form of mania: fanaticism, the act of being obsessively concerned with something. As someone diagnosed with depression, and who probably has a few other issues as well, I feel able to make such a comparison. Indeed, if it takes one to know one, I can call out this collective insanity. We almost fetishise this aspect of being a supporter: the anger, the irrationality, the paranoia, the grandiosity. It can bring great pleasure, but drive us nuts along the way. We let what happens on the pitch ruin our weekends, even our weeks, and get into arguments with fellow fans about what went wrong.

As many of you will know I suffer from long-term illness. This limits my life, and in my case led to depression (although I may have ended up a depressive anyway; it’s hard to know, although research shows that people with long-term illness and disability usually slip to a happiness level about 50% below where they were before).

And in a weird way my travails mirror Liverpool FC: I’ve been ill since late 1990 (with a diagnosis arriving only in 1999), and my increasing limitations have meant that I’ve watched others enjoying doing what I can’t. Basically, I’m Liverpool and healthy people are Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. (Presumably people with no hope at all are *insert name of your grossly under-performing rival here*.)



The practice of mindfulness is currently very popular, perhaps because of society’s ever-increasing chaos and speed, particularly in terms of communication and information overload. The way we experience life – and football – has changed since the birth of the internet, but also since we started carrying around smartphones.

Yes, we can switch both off, but if we do we might miss something really important, like a cat that can dance. In this brilliant clip, comedian Louis CK sums up the toxic nature of these devices, and how we are all fighting the natural sadness of, well, existence. Now we don’t just text people we know but tweet or post to strangers as well. (Here’s an article that shows why Facebook can be bad for your mental health.)

The idea of mindfulness is mainly about escaping the incessant churn of your thoughts – the hell of which could be summed up, metaphorically, by a Twitter timeline during a game (a fast-flowing stream of mania and verbal diarrhoea, mostly; the polar opposite of inner peace). The aim of mindfulness is to be ‘in the moment’, and it struck me how this might apply, en masse, to football fans, given how we all lose the plot during a game.

I used to watch a game of football. Now I’m busy writing sentences in my head and wondering what kind of reaction they’ll elicit, whilst simultaneously checking Twitter and this website for insightful observations or grievances that tally with my own.

Of course, I’m a writer, so writing sentences and checking up on information and intelligent opinion is my job, but most of the people who tweet or text constantly throughout a match aren’t doing it as a career (and those who tweet abuse at me because I don’t share their view aren’t doing it as a profession… I hope). And at times I share my thoughts not because I’m a writer but because I feel I will go absolutely batshit mental if I don’t. Maybe the maelstrom of thoughts will be quietened if I let a few out, like pressure escaping a valve. But that just creates the space for new ones to flood in.

It’s well documented how modern society is obsessed with sharing, and so you have people at football matches and concerts recording what they’ve paid to see, and, rather than watching it properly, stare at the tiny smartphone screen. Your idols are in front of you, and rather than take in the panorama, you focus in on a tiny reproduction of the action, which you will watch back later with the additional diminishment of relatively shitty sound. Rather than enjoy the moment you are thinking ahead, to what others say when you share it, or how you’ll feel when you later view a moment you tried to capture (and, in doing so, therefore automatically failed to capture).

I’ve found aspects of mindfulness helpful in terms of dealing with depression. Some of it drifts into the realms of spirituality, which I’m not entirely comfortable with. But I feel increasingly convinced that modern life drives us insane, and that we’ve somehow lost focus on what’s important; and indeed, simply how to live. While I’m not comfortable with spirituality, and even less comfortable with religion, I have always envied the peace at which many of those types seem to be. (Which is not to be confused with those bombing the living shit out of each other in the name of who they worship.)

If you watch television, read magazines or spend your life on YouTube, then you will see people with unrealistic looks (plastic surgeried and photoshopped) living unrealistic lives, and then, in the ads, you’ll be told, in various ways, that you’re not good enough. Being satisfied with what you have is not ideal for retailers and their pushers, the advertisers. Their whole raison d’être is to make you feel unhappy, with the promise that buying their product will remedy it. And so they contribute to your unhappiness, but their product, once you’ve been duped into purchasing it, probably only remedies it for a few minutes before buyer’s remorse sets in. (As an aside, research shows that buying experiences is far more beneficial to mental health than buying things.)

Perhaps the footballing equivalent is the YouTube video of an overseas player’s skills. People react like their team must have this player. People have tantrums when he doesn’t join their club. And, let’s face it, other teams always seem to be doing far better than the one we support. Why don’t we have their players, or their manager?

If you’re on social media you’ll witness people living far more exciting lives, either because it’s condensed down to the fun nights out (without the crying and puking in the loos and the hours of bored downtime as they text away the sadness), or because they want to show the world how they’re looking great and winning at life. (If you go for a night out and no one takes a photo, did it actually exist?)

Being in the ‘now’ involves leaving the past behind and not fearing the future. It doesn’t mean that you act as if you have no future, and therefore no longer care about life – “I’m enjoying this moment so much, looking up at the stars in awe-struck wonder as I walk at midnight, I don’t care that I’ve just wandered onto the fast lane of the M6 and am about to be hit by an lorry (whose driver is busily texting all his mates after listening to Badlands)”.

But the future hasn’t happened yet, and the past no longer exists (except in our minds, in often flawed interpretations). I’ve had a difficult few years involving a lot of loss and change, and at the start of this year, when I felt unwell (in part due to the stress of trying to market a novel that deals with loss and change), I spent a lot of time dwelling on it all.

Then, either as a reaction to it, or a consequence of it, I began to worry about my future. This led me to feel worse. And, with the cycle apparently broken at last, as I try to quieten my mind and get things in perspective (the past week has seen a profound stabilisation in my mood), it strikes me that this is precisely the routine of the football fan.

We worship the past, and yearn for how it made us feel. (Perhaps as Liverpool fans we are more guilty of this than anybody else, as we have arguably the most mythologised history in English football.) And we fear the future, worried that we’re ‘going nowhere’ or that this or that key player will leave us (or that I rivals will steal a march on us). While some Liverpool fans enjoyed last season, others seemed furious.

I say this as someone who has written on this site about whether or not I actually enjoy football anymore, or just endure it. Most of the time as a fan you are thinking about what can go wrong in the remaining time. Unless you’re three goals ahead – make that four, just to be safe (see our great past, and Istanbul; or indeed, less enjoyably, Crystal Palace last season) – then it’s hard to actually take pleasure in what’s unfolding.

Wins are not celebrated with happiness as much as relief; and your team has to win otherwise it’s a catastrophe. (Catastrophising is a classic mental pitfall.) And part of the reason it’s a catastrophe is because of the shared collective, as we have either invested all our hopes in success (and will crumble as people if our idealistic situations are not met), or we have to face up to rival fans – in work, online, down the pub (remember those quaint places?) – who will rub our noses in defeat. Perhaps we need the win to prove a point to someone, as we all strive to be 100% right 100% of the time.

If you watched football in isolation, and never spoke to anyone else about it, and no one even knew you even liked football – so there’d be no sudden conversations on the topic – then wouldn’t you just enjoy the sport and be free of all the baggage? Wouldn’t it be a pure, unadulterated experience?

An example of being in the moment

I had a weird experience at the home game against Leicester a couple of months back when, for a few minutes, I just watched Philippe Coutinho as, time and again in the second half, he got the ball just in front of my seat in the Lower Centenary – the same seat I’ve sat in hundreds of times over the past 21 years (albeit far less frequently since I transferred my season ticket to a friend), but which, for a while, felt like a totally new experience.

For a moment I was able to marvel at Coutinho’s ability. I ‘awoke’ from the stress and obsession of the game situation – gotta win! gotta win! gotta win! – and realised I was Anfield, in the bracing cold of New Years’s Day, watching a special talent. It suddenly didn’t matter if we won, lost or drew. I wasn’t as aware of the crowd, or my mate and his football-mad son beside me, although I was happy to be there with them and not at home alone. I wasn’t thinking of what I’d say on Twitter if my phone had any reception (it never does in the ground), or what I’d write for TTT when I got back.

I took pleasure from a little Brazilian bloke doing some magic with a football.

But the feeling didn’t last, and on the way home I was pissed off that we threw away a two-goal lead, and preoccupied about what I’d write for a book project I’d just been asked to contribute a chapter to, and how I’d find the energy to write something for TTT. I was worried about how I’d feel the next day, as my illness kicked the shit out of me. The part where I looked forward to going to the game had gone, and now, on top of throwing away a two-goal lead, there was only stuff to worry about.

However, those few minutes – where I watched Phil’s feet – felt like a childlike sense of wonder. At the time I wasn’t ‘practicing’ mindfulness, but the intensity of the experience stayed with me for days after, like a hyperreal vision in amongst the grey daydream of daily life: the verdant green of the grass under the floodlights, the pulsing red of the kit. And without wishing this piece to get all kooky, and to sound like I’m going to start burning some incense and wildly waving about the woowoo sticks, I felt alive.

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be able to try and enjoy football more.

And so I was prepared for the Southampton game, with a calm state of mind, and having adopted a relaxed position on the sofa. Within four minutes my heart-rate had skyrocketed, with several peaks in that brief spell, from which it never quite settled down to normal again before the next one arose. I started tweeting, started posting comments on TTT. With some 86 minutes remaining, all hope of being in the moment and not thinking about (and fearing) the future had evaporated. I was squirming, checking the time on the bottom corner of the BT Sports’ screen, distracted by the online chatter that kept me from appreciating the play, but which also kind of soothed me, as compulsive habits can.

I was wishing my life away; well, the next hour and a half of it. I’d been looking forward to the game all day (but not too much, as that would have taken my mind from the present moment), and with no more than four minutes gone I was wishing it was over. Therefore, where was the enjoyment of the game? Do we just consume results now? Is it all about getting the win and nothing else? The brief euphoria of Coutinho’s wonder-strike was instantly undermined by the way it looked like Southampton would be awarded a penalty at any moment.

And if you look at the top half of the table, how many sets of fans are actually happy with the season so far? Or, in fact, are ever happy?

Are Manchester City fans happy? Are Chelsea fans happy? After being sated to the gills for two decades, are Manchester United fans happy? Despite spending year after year in the Champions League,  and recently winning a trophy, are Arsenal fans happy? Are Spurs fans happy? Who the fuck is happy? (Apart from ‘arry, and even he’s not ‘appy anymore, with his dodgy knees.)

We crave greater and greater highs, because we become accustomed to what we have. No sooner do you attain success or achieve your goal than you realise that it’s actually not quite enough, and so, to use that perfect football metaphor, you move the goalposts. Happiness is like a football you bend down to pick up just as your toe pokes it out of reach.

(As an aside, watch footballers do this when they’re time-wasting; Oh look, I’ve accidentally kicked it away when I meant to pick it up. Oh look, I’ve just done it again.)

If Liverpool ever win the league again there will be an incredible party – a summer of non-stop joy, albeit interspersed with some big hangovers. But then, as soon as the next season starts, people will be moaning. This happened in 2005. I started writing for the official Liverpool FC site in August of that year, and a less than ideal start to the 2005/06 season meant that winning the Champions League a few months earlier was forgotten in an outpouring of rage, as people emailed me their ‘thoughts’.

Fans seem to increasingly revel in the misfortune of others. This schadenfreude perhaps represents the more selfish and self-absorbed nature of modern life. Perhaps it’s because you can no longer escape what other teams do, because, unlike 20 years ago, their game is not at the same time as yours, but one of half a dozen stretched out across the weekend, and you can’t escape their fans, because they’re all over the internet.

More often than not, ex-heroes who did little wrong are booed and jeered, and called Judas, as we fail to forgive them for leaving us, even if they did so in the same manner in which they joined. (For the record, if you ever meet a partner when he or she is involved with someone else, and, after starting the affair, leaves them to be with you, then surely you have to expect that they could do the same again?).

Part of being a football fan is about embracing the insanity: the blind passion is ritualised and even celebrated. But it also seems to be exacerbated by the way we consume the sport in modern life. At times it feels like it’s spiralling out of control. Male suicides are at a 15-year high, with some of the reasons outlined in this article on the CALM website.

“Research underlines that so often their own worst enemies, men need new rules for survival. Outmoded, incorrect and misplaced male self-beliefs are proving lethal and the traditional strong, silent response to adversity is increasingly failing to protect men from themselves.”

Men on Twitter often come across as stressed or depressed, and I know from my own reactions how much more likely I am to rise to the bait if I’m not in a good headspace. In the past month I’ve been contacted by friends and strangers about depression (I’m much better at giving advice than actually acting upon it myself).

I’m not sure what I want this article to achieve: research shows that writing about your personal life is healing and cathartic, but research also shows that the more of ourselves we put in public the more threatened we feel by things like social media, where our existences feel under the microscope (our shortcomings therefore exposed). I guess my job as a writer is to publish this, now that it’s written. Once it’s out there I’ll probably regret it, but maybe it will prove to be of some use to someone, somewhere.

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