The cliche line is that football (i.e. soccer) is a funny old game. In truth though, it can be a sad and very cruel game. I’ll explain why in a moment.
If you’re a Manchester United supporter today, you’re probably feeling on top of the world. If you support Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham or Liverpool, you probably feel gutted. But truth be told, none of teams in the upper half of the Premier League played well Saturday except for Newcastle United and Stoke City. Maybe it was the international break. But whatever the reason, Manchester United moved one giant step closer to winning the 2010-2011 Premier League title Saturday by creating a 7 point lead at the top over Arsenal and moving 11 points away from third place Chelsea. Both the Gunners and the Blues have a game in hand over United, but even in a best case scenario for Arsenal and Chelsea where both teams win their game in hand, Manchester United would still be 4 points and 8 points ahead of their neighbors. Manchester United’s lead seems insurmountable.
Watching the matches yesterday, I felt frustrated. In the Arsenal match, I wanted the Gunners to win to keep the race for the Premier League title alive. But despite the number of chances they created, they missed that final touch or perfect header. Robin van Persie was particularly to blame for wasting golden opportunities near the front of the box. But so too was Jack Wilshere who had the best chance of the match to score but hit his shot well wide of the goal.
In the Stoke City against Chelsea game, it was a far more entertaining game than the one at the Emirates but again, it was a frustrating one with both teams missing wonderful opportunities to score. Stoke City, especially, had so many chances in the second half but they too were missing that final touch. Chelsea had their chances and could have won it. But all in all, it was another frustrating day at the office for Chelsea especially after they already knew the result of the Manchester United game from earlier in the day.
That brings me to the main point of my article. After watching Wales last week get slaughtered by England in the Euro 2012 qualifier, and after following the minute-by-minute commentary on BBC Sport to see Swansea suffer a loss against the bottom place team in the Championship (Preston) which dents their automatic promotion hopes, I know what it’s like to feel – as a football supporter – completely depressed, devastated, frustrated and ultimately powerless. The past week is just a microcosm of life as a football supporter, but the reality is that being a die-hard supporter of a team can be a very trying and emotional experience. Watching games, you’re willing the ball to go into the back of the net or hoping your player makes the right move and shoots the ball where you think it should go. But they often don’t, and hit the ball directly at the keeper or sail it over the bar.
To be honest, it stresses me out at times. The highs are high but the lows are very low. And the reality is that none of us have any control over what unfolds before our eyes, whether it’s on television or in person. We are at the mercy of something that we have no control over. We may like to think that we can help teams win by wearing our lucky shirt, or carrying out some strange superstition. But as soon as the referee blows his whistle to kick the match off, we are simply passengers along for the ride.
During Swansea’s dark years near the bottom of the Football League, I still followed the team but I developed a weird way of dealing with their results. When following Swansea’s minute-by-minute match text commentary on BBC Sport, I would often switch it off if they went 1-0 down, thinking that they would never come back and that it would lessen the pain. Oftentimes they wouldn’t come back to draw or win and would lose. But if the final result ended up being a win, which was seldom the case, the final result would have exceeded my expectations and I would be pleasantly surprised by the victory. Being pleasantly surprised was far better than suffering the pain and agony of watching a minute-by-minute text commentary update itself every 60 seconds or so.
Watching your team frustrate you in person, online or on television are all nerve wracking experiences. Even more frustrating is the realization (which the players know too, of course) about how close your team is to victory. Seeing Arsenal tied at 0-0 with 20 minutes to go against Blackburn should be a positive moment. There are 20 minutes remaining where all the Gunners need is one goal. But the agony of seeing a team come so painfully close to scoring but the goal failing to get into the back of the net is a sad, even cruel, experience. To make matters worse, you have the TV cameras capturing the emotions by showing images of fans biting their nails. Or, even worse Saturday, showing an elderly woman almost in tears wearing Arsenal colors, or a child supposedly so overcome with the result that he hid his face from the game by holding on to his father, only for the child to turn around, as the camera zoomed in, to show that he was in fact smiling and laughing. What an awkward moment that was for the father as he smiled and laughed too.
Arsenal and Chelsea’s seasons are far from over yet. Chelsea supporters will comfort themselves in knowing that they’re still in the Champions League. And they still have to go to Old Trafford in the league. All that Arsenal have left is the league. I believe that most Arsenal fans, by now, realize that the team is not good enough to win the league this season. It’s still mathematically possible. Manchester United has to go to Emirates Stadium. But given the performances by Arsenal of late, it’s evident that they’ve run out of gas. The best that both Chelsea and Arsenal can hope for is that Manchester United will begin to stumble between now and the end of the season and drop valuable points. But even in a game like the one we saw yesterday, Manchester United has that power to bounce back from adversity and win games against all of the odds. They were helped by West Ham United’s deplorable defending yesterday, but it doesn’t matter whether it’s West Ham United or Blackpool or Aston Villa, this United team seems destined to win the title. And I think we can all admit, even die-hard Manchester United supporters, that this United side isn’t one of the greats. But what they do have is a powerful self-belief and enough quality players to bounce back.
It’s time like these when football supporters begin talking about next season and how that’ll be different. Sometimes it’s the only thing we can do to lift ourselves. Next time will be different. Right?
When facing frustrating games or devastating losses, how do you cope with the pain and adversity? Share your stories in the comments section below.