When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead: The ‘Science’ of following a football team

Bearing in mind the pharmaceutical background to this title, I think it is suitable to discuss the science of following a team. It is a line from Jefferson Airplane’s classic trip through the late sixties – the era defining ‘White Rabbit’. The science of following a team! Is that accurate? Is that a bit heavy? I don’t think so myself. Desmond Morris – anthropologist extraordinaire certainly didn’t think so and produced the masterful book- ‘The Football Tribe’. To me that was the equivalent of a clinical study in ‘The Lancet’.

The vagaries of it all are manifold and the factors relevant are like a scientific formula. Just off the top of my head look at the different ways that are pertinent. Individual and collective following, social media and phone in following, fair weather and hardcore. Global also. Even the perception of it all by non – believers has to be in there. Let’s strip it down a bit and try and keep it to the individual. The big daddy of them all of course is one’s relationship to the club which is or should be overarching. It may bend and stretch and need nutrition at times but should never break. Certainly not to anyone who is reading this. The club carries a few major totems – the badge, the colours, the ground and the history.

We’ll leave it at that for the minute. Beyond the ‘club’ circumference the two sub circles ever bubbling, ever competing for mental attention are the players and the team. The players affect the team and the team affects the club. That perpetuating fact churns the maelstrom in your head. The maelstrom can fall good, bad or ‘adequate’ but isn’t it relevant that the team and players are human, but the club is not. Thus the team/ players will probably take us to a higher and lower sphere at various points than the club. The club is steadier perhaps. Life hits football too!

The nature of football supporting by and large will extend over a protracted period so thus life’s highs and lows permeate the football bubble. Depending who you are of course, the highs and lows of your football team will create your life’s highs and lows perhaps. Job ups or downs, family, relationships, money and health all creep in and out of the endorphin enclosure. For many their football team is right in there competing. Thus great teams take on the elephantine presence in peoples’ lives. The presence is amplified as by its very nature football is the escape from the humdrum. Any goodness and benefit from one’s team is squared and cubed compared to those other life competitors. Or perhaps not!

These teams of course spill over from the personal to the corporate. Celebrated by the media and club they are building blocks of history. Music is perhaps the only thing that can rival this sort of thing with eras, line-ups, songs, concerts and albums rivalling goals, matches, trophies etc. The main difference, of course, being the personal buy in to music whereby football is much more the collective and the geographical I suppose. So if the club is the never changing air that we breathe, and the team could be compared to the weather, the players are maybe the daily cycle and moods of life. They are after all the worker bees of the club that nourish the soul. They provide vibrancy and it is indeed over to them that we give our time, money and love. I have heard them described as many things but I do concur with someone who said that they are ‘the custodians’ of the shirt.

They provide the goals, the tackles, the passes, the style, attitude and most priceless of all, the fan interaction. And because it’s human and because it replicates real life our relationship with them in this escapist world bounces between high and low. I suggest the relationship with the club is a little more steady. But what are the forces that challenge our love? Certainly, the club not getting results is a major but the reasons behind that are things that do longer-lasting damage to the resilience of fans. Most fans have a deeply built-in expectation of what to accept from their club. Reasons affecting generally include money available, history and player capability. When the expectation norm isn’t met then there are problems – not that different from real life really.

The negative tradewinds generally go to the manager but fans are generally smart enough when all isn’t well in the support trenches. Many other things get the mental club scarf fraying. A negative or boring playing style can upset many and another is when public utterances from Chairmen or managers patently treat the fans as fools. The fireworks occur here as the fans will be there long after such people move on. General negative publicity surrounding a club can affect the weak-willed and indeed fellow fans’ behaviour can be the final straw sometimes.

I gave weight earlier in this article to the bulwark of the club and its blood brothers such as colours, badge, name and ground – in short, tradition. Nowadays these are considered fair game by foreign ownership. British football fans in some cases are now walking through the minefield holding hands with the Devil. Cardiff City’s colour change drama from blue to red was as Mephisto metaphorical as real. Hull City’s name change is another obvious example, but names like Venky’s, JD Sports and Oyston amongst others are seen as hollowing out the marrow of some of our clubs. Your frustration over your club’s summer transfer policy may pale a bit over your club’s short and long-term existence.

Transfers now are becoming an increasing malignancy, fuelled by the ‘window’. The turned head is now the most common injury prevalent in the game and instantly gets you out of PE. This type of injury is more common in August and January and interestingly physios are unable to deal with it. It won’t be long before the team photo has the team ‘guru’ in it. Conversely, clubs can lose interest in players just as easily as Raheem Sterling would know earlier this season, and this may justify in his head his own exit from Liverpool. So, the bile is all very Linda Blair in that it hits players and clubs equally.

And yet we all take it in our increasingly disjointed stride. Antonio Conte’s August press conference hysterics at the antics of Diego Costa, will surely morph into the deranged lunatic laugh at the opening of Dark Side of the Moon. And is that laugh the one of the game laughing at us? If you know that album, the laugh becomes a demented howl. For many, the game is their personal oasis from the mania of life. It is serious but not serious. Are those lines becoming blurred now at the top end of the game. To take it back to Desmond Morris, are we as watching apes, becoming ever more naked as we view from our corporate trees?
We’ll let Grace Slick have the last thoughts on the matter.

“Feed your head, Feed your head”.