Off Piste: Lifetime kicks

Cary Cooper reflects on the ups and downs, the friendships and rivalries, the knife-edge thrills and raw passion of years spent loving a tribal and beautiful game

February 12, 2009

I have been working in the field of occupational stress for more than 25 years, exploring the sources of stress facing people at work, what organisations should do about them and how individuals can best cope with these excessive pressures. Personally, I have found that getting immersed in football helps me escape from the everyday pressures of work.

So what is it about being a committed football fan that provides me with some solace, and a reasonable feel-good factor on occasion - even though I have to admit to being a Manchester City fan?

Some would say that this should make my problems worse, with all the stress and strain of supporting a volatile football club that bounces up and down divisions, whose consistency has evaded some of the game's best managers, and which, even with substantial funding and world-class players, has managed to drift up and down the Premier League with wearying regularity.

I suppose that if I were a social anthropologist, I would have a ready explanation for this subcultural phenomenon, but as a simple occupational psychologist who is trying to understand my commitment to the "beautiful game", I am on a voyage of discovery about what this sport does for me as a person.

One aspect of football that I really enjoy is its tribal nature and the sense of community it provides, particularly during the season, and the despond out of season when my Saturdays feel empty - how sad can you get? I have made many friends through being a fan, but the game's appeal goes beyond that.

Perhaps this is because many of us have less connection with our extended families, neighbourhoods and communities than we did in the past, as we make frequent moves (both geographically and socially) to get better jobs and to further our careers, stimulated by the Americanisation of Britain and the enterprise culture initiated by Thatcherism in the 1980s.

When people think of football fans being tribal, they think of the bad old days of fights with opposing fans, of riots before or after matches and of pitch invasions, rather than the camaraderie among a community of people with a common interest, namely winning - or moaning, as has been the case with my Manchester City in the past.

Stuart Hall, the BBC Radio 2 football commentator and lifelong football fan, once told me that "passion is important because football is tribal warfare, nothing less than that". I agree with him about the passion and the sport's tribal nature, but today it is less about warfare, as the tribal aspects have taken a rather different form. It is now more of a local village meeting held on Saturday afternoons, but in purpose-built stadiums rather than in village halls.

Hall does have a point about passion, though, and this is another aspect of football I really enjoy. In life generally, people are working so hard and so long these days that they have little time to express their emotions and passions. What I get when I go to a football match is raw emotion and passion - on the pitch, in the stands and in the local shops and streets surrounding the ground.

As former England captain Bryan Robson once said: "In any profession you've got to have passion and love for the thing that you're doing. I think the more desire you have, the better chance you've got of reaching the top."

This applies not only to the players but also to the fans, and the passion for the team helps to create the bonds between the fans and their sense of community - assuming, of course, there is passion on the pitch, too. What fans hate most is when the players don't display the same passion. Oddly enough, losing is not necessarily the problem - it is the lack of commitment that most distresses fans.

Another thing that I have observed about football is loyalty. In today's world, there is less and less loyalty, particularly from our employers, as the psychological contract between employer and employee has been substantially eroded over the past two decades, a phenomenon that is getting much worse in these recessionary times.

This loyalty factor was highlighted by Keith Edelman, the former managing director of Arsenal Football Club, when talking about the fan as a customer.

"I think retail organisations would die to have the kind of relationship with their customers that we have with our fans ... For example, if you increased the ticket price at Arsenal, people wouldn't like it and they'd write in and complain, but they would still pay up. In retail there's a much less intimate relationship, so people are less likely to complain because they know they have free choice to go elsewhere. In a football environment, they don't; their loyalty binds them to the club."

I recall that when Manchester City was relegated to the old Second Division, the number of season tickets sold grew substantially - where else would failure to deliver results lead to increased demand?

Another aspect of football that appeals to me is that every fan thinks he or she is more knowledgeable than the club's manager. If your team is losing or has lost a game, the pointed comments - "Why didn't he play X instead of Y?"; "He should have used a 4-4-2 as opposed to one up front" - abound during and after the match, on the terraces and via the post-match phone-ins on the radio, where many fans ring up to express their "managerial views" full of hostility or praise.

As Craig Brown, former Scotland manager, once remarked: "The easiest team for a manager to pick is the Hindsight XI." Picking over a team's performance allows fans to express their opinions, share their perceptions and engage in dialogue with their friends. In a world where people perceive themselves to have less and less control and involvement in the workplace and elsewhere in life, this is one arena where they can have an unfettered say.

I am also fascinated by the fact that in football, as in so many other sports, there is an immediate result or outcome based on performance. For most of us, it might take months if not years before we understand the impact of our contribution to work. Indeed, in many jobs people never know precisely what their "added value" is. What players and managers must find stressful, but also energising, is knowing the direct result of their contribution to the bottom line - in this case, whether they win or not.

When the manager made the decision to substitute X for Y, did that deliver the goal? When the manager bought a Brazilian or Italian player for millions, did it make a difference? Did he earn his ludicrous weekly wage packet by scoring loads of goals?

Decisions reached by coaches and managers can be assessed in the short to medium term, whereas for most of us it is more difficult to see the consequences of our decisions. From the fan's perspective, it is interesting to observe and discuss the consequences of decision-making by managers and clubs and to try to predict the outcomes of those choices. This is part of the overall drama of the beautiful game's theatre, where the fan is part of the interactive audience experience.

Football also has a wider social networking dimension. It astonishes me how the mention of football can smooth social interactions when you first meet people.

Although talking about your own football club with others has always broken the social ice with men, over the years more and more women have become football junkies, and it is having the same effect with them. This is particularly the case if your team is considered an underdog. People seem to have sympathy for fans of such clubs, and I have benefited from this as a Manchester City fan - although this is likely to change as my club is now funded by wealthy foreign investors.

There is also something attractive about sharing with others who support deprived and underperforming clubs that sense of antipathy to established and richer ones. This feeling incorporates classic psychological symptoms of jealousy, envy, projection and the like, but additionally serves as a social vehicle to forge relationships with people similar to yourself, or helps to create competitive but friendly banter with those supporting one of the top four clubs. Either way, it helps to grease the social wheels of new relationships.

Most important, it helps form friendships that transcend the class divide. There are not many places or situations in Britain today where people of all classes are thrown together in a common cause. In some circumstances, football can be the social glue that binds together different people from different backgrounds.

And finally, it is wonderful to see a club of not very expensive players doing unexpectedly well. On those rare occasions when the stars align, it is uplifting to see a squad without any highly paid celebrity players beat a top Premiership club, where each player earns a salary that is greater than that of the entire team that defeated them.

This can happen in FA Cup games and in other knockout competitions. Basically, this is about the unpredictability and, therefore, the exciting nature of football. You can never tell from one game to the next what might happen. The unexpected, the upset and the giant-killer events make this game a theatrical experience - it is like listening to free-wheeling jazz or watching an improvised play.

In life there are countless aspects of our work and daily routine that are predictable, and the beauty of watching football is its unpredictability - the sense that anything is possible, and that even your League Two team can beat one of the top four Premier League clubs in a cup competition. And wonderfully, it happens almost every year.

It is also a game where those involved make few excuses. It is up to them to deliver.

I am reminded of lines from George Bernard Shaw's play Mrs Warren's Profession: "I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can't find them, make them." In football, players, managers and the fans can make it happen.

The excitement, the camaraderie, the social networking, the opportunity to express raw emotion in an acceptable context and the friendships formed are at the heart of the football experience. As a psychologist, I see in this natural laboratory of life all the elements of human behaviour, and I love it.

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