When something serious happens at a football match, whether it’s a player, or manager having a heart attack, or someone getting a terrible injury, people will often say something along the lines of ‘it puts everything into perspective’. In other words, it is not until something genuinely awful happens, that you realise football isn’t very important at all. For a brief moment, all the screaming and shouting seems vapid and pointless. All the joy at a ball entering a goal, suddenly like so much candy floss caught in the wind, at the circus of life.
But those fleeting, illuminating rays of perspective are always quickly clouded. And by the time the next game rolls around, we’ve gone back to the default. The trivial is once again elevated to being important. The now common use of the word ‘warrior’ in relation to a footballer is a perfect expression of this. He’s not a warrior, he’s a sportsman. To call him a warrior is ludicrous and inappropriate. This is sport nor war. We need to learn this for our mental health.
When I read about Aaron Lennon’s situation, like many, I put my hands together and sent him good thoughts because, lord knows, none of us are immune to these problems. Perhaps those who think they are immune are at the most risk.
His mental health issues provoked some ‘puts things in perspective’ reporting. In between the usual vulgar, crass newspaper garbage (whose output I firmly believe is consciously, viciously and immorally trying to monetise mental distress, for the entertainment of the emotionally numb and similarly upset), there were some more thoughtful pieces about the pressure football puts on those who play, and how that can affect their emotional landscape. When your job is played out in public, in front of tens of thousands of people, all of whom are allowed to critique or praise you, and the only qualification they need to do that is to pay for a ticket, you can go from hero to zero in minutes, and back to hero again soon enough. It must put hellish pressure on you. I often wonder if this is the reason some footballers look far older than their years, despite the luxurious lifestyle their money delivers.
We must understand this in how we respond to football. What we say and do matters. We can’t separate mental illness from the society it exists in. The idea that if we just keep berating people, whether in person, in the papers or online, it will have a positive effect, or is somehow justified, is ludicrous. Yet, in the world of football, the abuse culture is absolutely at the core of the game. It is used as a balm to soothe psychic wounds, but only succeeds in opening up more.
Most weeks we can hear Graeme Souness and others complaining about players being “too nice” to each other. At the weekend he was advocating “going right through” someone to get the Anfield crowd excited. And there’s no point in denying the thrill that such a thing can bring. We all feel it. We all respond with heightened emotion to aggression. It’s built into us as animals. Indeed, many of us feel the game has been neutered in recent years, robbing it of physicality and confrontation.
But then you see the damage this addiction to aggression and confrontation does and, as I’ve got older, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve been wrong all these years. Passion is a much-vaunted trait but I’m sure we’ve all been to games where a minority of fans have totally lost it, raging at their own side, or the opposition, totally off their heads on some sense of injustice about a mere football match. If you want a good example of this, go to any Old Firm game. Even now, in 2017, it is monstrously visceral. Hatred fills the air like a poisonous gas.
Domestic violence figures increased by 43% after an Old Firm game last year, as men return home, full of football anger and drink and assault their partners and children. Indeed, this is common right across football, after big rivals play each other. All too often, football brings the hate.
Look at messageboards and social media, and it’s full of people being horrible to opposition fans, to opposition players and increasingly to their own players. Screaming abuse at them, as though they are not just people who like or play a sport. You even see parents doing it at kids’ games.
You don’t get to dip your crouton in the hate fondue, without it having consequences for yourself. It took me a long time to realise that whipping up contempt and anger in yourself towards ineffectual, harmless people such as footballers only upsets your own peace of mind and may be an expression of your own mental fragility. Now, when I see it happening, it looks disturbing and very inappropriate.
The figures suggest that for many, England has an increasingly depressed and unhappy population, uneasy in its own skin, worried about who it is standing next to. One gang are fearing the slack-jawed stupids are dragging everyone down to their dumb level, the other feeling a metropolitan elite is denying them opportunity and oppressing them with values they don’t own. So it’s only natural that this finds an outlet in football’s hate culture.
But we need to stand back and disconnect from such negative emotions. It isn’t fun and it isn’t harmless. If you have to turn a player, manager or Twitter poster, into a hate figure – the way some have done to Mesut Ozil, to take just one example – perhaps you’re just trying to release your own internal negativities and you’ve got issues you need to address. Bottling it up for a Saturday afternoon and then transferring your own self-hatred, anger and loathing to a footballer, or an opposition fan, or someone on social media, is an extreme thing to do. An extreme thing so commonplace that we don’t see it as such.
If you feel content in yourself, if you’re happy and centred, going bonkers at something to do with a football match doesn’t happen. Trust me. I’ve been on both sides of the mental health fence for my whole life (though, like most, I didn’t realise this until the last few years) and in the good times, like now, the hate flame is turned off. In bad times, it is white hot, always alight, and it wants nothing more than to blister and burn and set fires in as many places as it can. When you feel like that, ‘do unto others as you would do unto yourself’ is your mantra, as you go about trying to make everyone feel as bad as yourself.
This is all just a question of degree. Excitement, laughter, applause, cheering, it’s all positive stuff. We don’t need to go all happy-clappy, hello skies, hello trees, but we do need to keep connected to our humanity at all times, and sometimes, it seems to be a fragile connection.
The list of footballers who have spoken about the mental agonies they have suffered is long and it’d be easy to feel this is just the tip of a large iceberg. But football isn’t a special case. Research published by the Mental Health Foundation suggests that in the UK, 70% of 18-to 34-year-olds and 68% of 35-to 54-year-olds have experienced a mental health problem. This will manifest itself in myriad ways, from being curled up in a dark room sobbing and wishing death would give you some sweet relief from this nameless void of ceaseless f**king torment, to just hunkering down and being quiet for a few weeks, whilst seeing only the bad in things.
There’s no shame in it. It is a normal part of being human. Hold my hand. It’s going to be okay. You’re better and more beautiful than you might know, but let’s not allow football to be our hate enabler any longer. We’ll all be happier for it.