Football provides many social functions in society, from instilling local and civic pride to giving people an excuse to avoid doing DIY on a Saturday afternoon. However, one of its least recognized but most important functions is what your psychiatrist might call, if they were uneducated in psychiatry and was in fact a football journalist, ‘transference of emotion.’
What I mean by this is that players, managers and clubs come to represent aspects of things we love, loath or are indifferent to in a broader social context. I first realised this about 35 years ago when watching Rodney Marsh playing for QPR against Middlesbrough. He was mesmerizing to me, as a 12 year old. If Rodney had played today he would have been lauded to the hills as a genius in the way that Ronaldinho’s is. He was capable of breathtaking skill played out on pitches that were frequently little more than a large muddy sand pit and he did it with an air of rebellious dishevelled glory. With long, scruffy hair, his shirt out and his socks rolled down, Rod looked more like a rock star than a footballer. To me, he became symbolic of an attitude, of an approach to life that I wanted to follow. Rodney was rock n roll football in excelsis.
By contrast at the time, Geoff Hurst, world cup hat-trick hero and still a top rank player at West Ham, was dull, boring and despite his qualities as a player, was symbolic of everything I didn’t want to be. Solid, respectable, neat and tidy, Hurst was everything Rodney wasn’t. He represented the straight world to me; the world of smart pubs, anodyne pop music, suits and ties.
These two footballers somehow enshrined and encapsulated qualities of life outside of the football they played. I’m convinced that everyone feels like this to some degree. Fans will scream abuse at a player because he somehow represents in his play, in his appearance or his attitude something in society more broadly that oppresses or just annoys them. Equally they will be a fan of player because we feel he is either like us, or how we’d like to be.
Referees are an obvious example. The worst referees and I’m thinking of Mike Riley here, remind us of weak, small men who have invested themselves with some power in order to make themselves bigger and stronger than they really are as people. We’ve all met men like that, whether it’s your bank manager, the shop steward in the factory or the useless fool in tech support. You can’t respect them because you know their true nature and yet in the environment within which they work, they have some power or control over you. That is really bloody infuriating. So when we see the likes of Riley mincing around a football pitch with his sparrow-like, bony legs sticking out of his voluminous shorts, he automatically plugs into a whole reservoir of emotions we have stored up inside of us. Consequently, the opportunity to hurl abuse at him is taken with relish.
While this may seem like some kind of bitter, scary psychosis, I consider it a healthy thing. Football provides us with an acceptable way to blow off steam. It releases pent up negative emotion that might otherwise be held in and swallowed down so deeply that when it does surface you’ll end up making headline news that will inevitably end with the words “….before turning the gun on himself.”
Players and managers become a symbol of greater values and thus Ashley Cole is narcissism and greed, while Stuart Pearce is honesty and toil. We might do this all on a subconscious level but it underpins the game and indeed, probably all sport. It is the working out of our psyches and our world views. It helps us from an early age to order, understand and organise the world. It allows us to vent our hopes, dreams and ambitions, bigotries and altruism. It allows us to assign blame to people for our failures and disappointments and it allows us to share glories. It also helps us understand each other. If someone’s favourite player is say, Kevin Davies they are likely to be a very different person to a fan whose favourite player is Joe Cole. A football fan would automatically gain an insight into that person’s character without knowing anything else about them. It is a short-cut to understanding.
So when people criticize you for your passion and obsession about the game, tell them it’s all part of your on-going project of personal psycho-analysis. This is especially useful if the Mrs wants you to go shopping when there’s a game to watch on the TV. Just say “I am working out the true nature of my psyche by measuring the intensity of my emotional response to Rob Stiles decision making, err……darling.”
And, though you may not stay married for long, you will, at least, not be lying.
John Nicholson writes each week for Football 365 and EPL Talk. You can listen to John’s wonderful stories on episode 30 and 45 of the EPL Talk Podcast, as well as purchase his excellent Footy Rocks book and order one of his unique rock’n roll T-shirts.