Teddy Cutler (L&S Mind Volunteer) writes on how a recent trip to watch Aston Villa caused him to consider some surprising links between football support and mental health
56 per cent of respondents to a recent Mind survey believed people found it easier to express their emotions at football matches than in ‘real life’.
For the uninitiated, this may result may be surprising. But it resonates with me not because of its shock value but because it seems so, well, unsurprising.
In fact, as a 26-year-old man who used to get so nervous before Aston Villa games two decades ago that he would projectile vomit when goals were scored and who has never lost the nauseating excitement of match day, the only shocking thing was that 56 per cent affirmed, rather than upwards of 90.
I can only think that Mind happened upon a group of people for whom going to a game on a Saturday afternoon hasn’t been a lifetime’s passion and torment! Because anyone who follows a team live regularly, or even observes neutrally from afar, will surely have come across that extraordinary sociological phenomenon of thousands of men hugging without restraint.
I say men because, unfortunately, football crowds remain predominantly male – or at least the ones that I’ve been around. This makes that phenomenon I just described even more striking. When Villa score, the Holte End where my dad and I usually sit erupts with joy. 13,000 or so bodies jump up and down uncontrollably for a minute or so (before the nerves set in again…)
The curious thing about it all is that you will often end up hugging or dancing an impromptu jig with someone you only met 45 minutes ago and will almost certainly never meet again. Curiouser that so many of the huggers and dancers will suppress feelings like these outside of the confines of a football stadium.
Men, still, aren’t encouraged often enough to treat depression as the illness it is. Less than 20 per cent of respondents to a 2016 Men’s Health Forum survey said they would take time off work for anxiety or low moods. The same study revealed 34 per cent of the 1,112 men surveyed would be “embarrassed” or “ashamed” to take time off work for a mental health problem. Research conducted by Mind, published in 2017, revealed that though one in three men would put their mental health problems down to their job, men are less likely to seek support from their employer for their condition.
Before I risk claiming football support as some kind of magic bullet, I should point out that the experience of going to a match with thousands of other like-minded fans doesn’t magically encourage everyone in the stands to start opening up about mental health! The language of football supporters is often as coarse and literal as the stereotypes portray and, to be brutal, the conversation rarely extends beyond crying with frustration at the players and, yes and far too often, the referee.
Still, there’s something quite heartening about being hugged by a group of very drunk men. Last Saturday, as Villa’s Jonathan Kodjia nodded us into the lead at Portman Road, Ipswich, I found myself embraced by one such man. The bond lasted for 90 minutes – any time Villa came close to the Ipswich goal during a frenetic second half, he gave me a sort of shoulder massage motivated by our shared excitement.
Precisely because I doubt I’ll ever see the same man again, or talk to him, I can’t help but think that the weird friendship we formed – including my helping him up when he fell over the back of his seat after Villa scored – is kind of important. Villa drew in the end – a disappointing result – but every one of us who hugged and screamed for an hour and a half in sharp contrast to our repressed emotional lives took away something more important, even, than a football result.
It’s very apt, I think, that Mind will be represented on the backs of so many football supporters this season via its partnership with the EFL (English Football League) – inside stadiums and out. For the sake of our mental health, maybe we could all do with acting a little more like football fans!