Ooos and aaaahs

My kids tell me that I make a lot of noise when I watch a football match. My daughter remembers the time when she walked into the kitchen, with a friend, to see me quietly watching Tele. It wasn’t immediately apparent to her that I was actually watching an FA cup match and I was staring at the tv in quiet anticipation. A moment later, when a Payet free kick nestled into the top corner of David De Gea’s net, I exploded with raucous noise and jumped around the room. She and her friend, after a moment of shocked silence, ran out of the room giggling.

They tell me that it’s worse when I watch a televised West Ham match, at the local Pub. I live in Sheffield and so I usually sit with one or two other West Ham supporters in a room full of either opposing fans or people trying to enjoy a quiet pint. In that location, my kids suggest, I should temper my enthusiasm or it might annoy people. I suppose they have a point. I have often pointed out to them that we behave differently in different places. We adapt to the situation and so, for example, we would speak and move differently in church on a Sunday morning than we would in a Night Club on a Friday night. We also understand the rules of behaviour in a job interview or standing in a queue at the Post Office. We learn what is acceptable, and not, from experience or by observing those around us. Therefore, the way that people behave is a pub on a Sunday afternoon is to sit and chat with friends, not to scream at the tv. That is, unless everyone is doing the same, and only then is such behaviour permitted.

However, I have been brought up to see football as something that you verbally respond to. This maybe because, when I first fell in love with the game and my club, there were no ‘live’ games on tv and so you experienced it at Upton Park, surrounded by other people behaving in the same way. I understood from an early age that football is something to watch in an emotional and engaged way. So, even in a pub full of non-West Ham fans on a Sunday afternoon, I can’t help myself shouting and screaming at the screen. Football is not a game to watch in silence, unless you are a neutral. If something happens you make noises through your mouth… Oooo, Ahhhh, Yes! What? No! And the ultimate burst of noise that happens when there is a goal Yeeeerrrhhhh!!!!!

It’s funny because, as I’ve got older, I have found myself going to quite a few games as a neutral supporter. This has been driven by the difficulty in getting tickets for West Ham away games and also a desire to tick off all 92 league football grounds. Therefore, this season, I have also been to matches at Colchester, Rochdale and Port Vale. Most often I sit with the home fans and feel obliged to cheer when the home team score, but secretly I am watching them as much as I am their team. I want to understand what it is to be a football fan. Plus, I still want to experience that grass roots, old fashioned football atmosphere, like a collector of rare stamps or an Anthropologist seeking out an unknown tribe.

It also means that, when on holiday, I try and get to see European clubs sides. In the last few years I have seen a top top flight games in Slovenia, Spain and Portugal and a pre-season friendly in Germany. And, I can tell you, as a dedicated observer of football behaviours, in other cultures they don’t make noise in the same way we do (Or should that be… I do?)

I particularly point to two matches I have seen whilst on holiday. The first was at Barcelona and the second at Porto. The Barelona game was in late August and the ground had a large number of tourists, like me. Loads of people around me had smart phones, above their heads, for much of the game. It was as if they wanted to record their presence more than actually be ‘present’ as the game. People watched free kicks through their phones, as if they were in their kitchens at home. There was an odd distance between the events on the pitch and the spectators (not a physical distance, so much as an emotional distance). Perhaps this was because Barcelona were playing a team from lower down the league and so there was no jeopardy. They knew they would win and sure enough, even though they played for most of the match with ten men, they duly won 3-0. I imagine it would have been different had they been playing Real Madrid. However, I also think that, no matter what game, there will be loads of tourists recording their experience, rather than actually experiencing the match. We’ve seen that at the London Stadium too!

The Porto game happened this summer. It was a great game and finished Porto 2 Vitoria Guimaraes 3 and this despite Porto being 2-0 up at half time. On this occasion there were no tourists around me and no one got their smart phones out; or perhaps only on rare occasions they did. Before the match there was loads of noise, orchestrated and choreographed by some men in front of the crowd. On a given signal about twenty supporters carrying large flags on poles ran to a designated position (in direct site of the tv cameras) and huge banners were unfurled in the crowd. I was on the front row and had to hold the flag and then gather it up by my feet. Everyone around me did it and so I followed suit. There was also a lot of loud singing. It felt like this had been orchestrated too and I think was augmented by noise also being piped through the loud speakers. I have to say, though, that it was quite spectacular and made everyone excited about the game.

Much of the noise continued through the first half, but I was really struck by one thing. Even though there was a loud cheer when the ball hit the net, there were very few other reactive noises. If a shot went narrowly wide there no Oooos. There were also no sounds of anticipation, as their team approached the goal. Around me the fans occasionally shouted at the players, but less than I was used to in England. It made me think that the difference in footballing culture might point towards the essence of the famous Premier League atmosphere. Is it the noises of near misses and bad fouls? The spontaneous reactions of the fans?

An Oooo and an Ahhh is effectively an exhilation of breath. It is breathing out, but with a sound. As humans, we often use a voiced breath. When we want to get babies to sleep we say Ssshhhh, which is a slow voiced breath out and encourages them to slow their own breathing to the same pace. When we are talking and we want to signal that we haven’t finished we go ‘errr’, which stops someone jumping in. When we see someone across the street we shout ‘Oi’, which is a loud signal signal to capture attention. These are not words, but grunts. It is the first thing we learn. Crying is a way to capture the attention by making noise through our mouth. If crying was just an expression of emotion, we might do it quietly, but it is also a signal of our feelings voiced for others to hear. Similarly an Oooo or an Ahhhh, no matter how subconscious, is a signal of allegiance, voiced for others to hear.

However, I also think it is more than that. I cheer when West Ham score in a crowd, but also on my own in the kitchen. I am expressing a feeling of euphoria. It is a sudden rush of emotion (in crude terms similar to a male ejaculation). The ultimate pleasure in a football match is the goal, the sudden burst of verbal emotion, and this needs a quick intake of breath to allow the voiced breath out. The Oooos and Ahhhhs also follow a sharp intake of breath but are then a slower release of the breath out, which verbally signals a different emotion (in part disappointment and in part a signal to the other team just how close that was).

There’s something to be said here about ‘presence’ too. I mentioned this earlier when thinking about the fans with their mobile phones at the Barcelona game. They were thinking as much about showing it to others as they were experiencing the moment. I am a lecturer in Performance and so think of presence with regards to the actor. A Russion theatre director of the last century (Meyerhold) wrote that when an animal appears on stage they have more presence than an actor. They are not acting they are just being. There is a lack of self consciouness in animals. They dont think, how is this looking to others? This is something that plagues politicians. Often politicians now don’t appear to have presence (and with it authenticity). They are speaking to different audiences across different media. The problem is that great orators, that can hold a crowd, can seem over blown on the small screen in your living room (Neil Kinnock is an example of this).

Presence is something that is considered in mindfulness and meditation too. In these practices there is a focus on breath. The simple act of breathing in and out, it is argued, helps us to deal with stress and negative emotions and sharpens our ability to concentrate. It also roots us in the here and now. In the present moment.

So, I love watching football because it allows me to express emotion. It also allows me to do this out loud. It allows me to get my heart pumping and to express pleasure and disappointment. It literally allows me to express my emotions. I also love football because I can observe that emotion around me and take pleasure in the sharing of this. I don’t know why the Portuguese football fans are not ‘on the edge of their seats’ as much as we are, waiting and anticipating a goal. I am only interested here in observing their behaviour as a way of illuminating our own.

I also love football grounds because they are temples of emotion where week after week the noises of euphoria and disappointment have echoed around the stands. I am a willing participant in these rituals, voicing and acknowledging, with others, my presence. Together we are saying… “Can you hear? I am here. I am breathing. I am alive!”

A moment of optimism

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As we approach the start of a new Premier League season, there are plenty of pundits being asked for their previews and predictions for the year ahead. The Observer did it differently, though. They asked a supporter from each team to write their predictions of where their team would finish and I was struck by the uniformity of their responses. The supporters of the “top six” teams were confident that their teams would either win the league or at least finish in a Champions League place, supporters of the teams widely predicted, by others, to be relegated said their clubs would finish one place above the relegation zone in 17th and all the others more or less said their teams would finish between 8th – 12th place. None of the predictions were outlandish or completely overblown, but they all were at the top end of expectations. That was because all of them were written from a position of optimism.

Fans generally start a new season feeling optimistic. They think “the last year has been put to bed and this new year will be better”. No doubt there will have been a signing or two to add strength to the team or to shore up the obvious flaws from the last season. The manager would have been able to see where they needed to strengthen and, in theory, will have done so. The results from the pre season friendlies might have been disappointing, but they can be discounted as meaningless. We all have stories of how a bad pre season did nothing to foretell the great year ahead (West Ham – summer 1985). Anything can happen in the first few games and a “couple of wins takes the pressure off and allows the team the space to properly find their feet”

As a West Ham fan, I have often made my way to an early season game, eager to see a new signing and hopeful of the impact they would make. On 3rd Sept 1988, I remember going to Upton Park to see our new striker, David Kelly, make his home debut against Charlton. We lost 3-1 and at the end of the season were relegated. One defeat doesn’t make a season, though, and early defeats don’t entirely put paid to your optimism. I reckon it takes about five games to really do that. Jump to 2010. We hadn’t spent much money in the summer but had brought in quite a few new players (Winston Reid was among them, as was Freddie Piquionne). We went to Villa Park, for the season opener, with hope, but were thumped 3-0, followed by a 3-1 loss at home to Bolton, a 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford and another 3-1 defeat at home to Chelsea. So, in this year it took just four games for me to see the writing on the wall. Not surprisingly we were relegated, in last place, at the end of the season. (Of course it doesnt always work like that. Last year Crystal Palace lost their first seven games without scoring a goal and survived, whereas West Brom won their first two matches, but ended up being relegated)

The strange thing about this high level of optimism at the start of the season, is that football fans are generally known for being ‘moaners’. Tune in to any football phone-in programme and you’ll hear the regular football fan berate their team, the referee, the other side…, anything, really. Social media can also be vicious. I’m sure we all know people, football fans or not, whose glass is half full, but also plenty more who have it half empty. We like to position people as one or the other, positive or not, whereas I’m sure there is a spectrum like everything else. Another way to characterise this dichotomy, is to seperate people into the ‘plumbing’ metaphor of drains or radiators. I know people who radiate positivity, but my goodness I also know some who are real ‘drains’.

Its generally accepted, by health professionals, that optimism is a positive thing for ones mental health and that negative thinking can have a serious detrimental effect. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which is a common tool of the modern NHS focuses on people’s negative thoughts by getting them to recognise and tackle them. One of the “thinking errors” in CBT is “catastrophising”, which is when you consider something negative that happens, as more serious than it really is (“it always happens to me / it’s a total disaster”). This seems to me to be the default view of many football fans on social media.

Optimism is also a factor for the players and the manager. Confidence, in a player, can improve their performance (think of the striker who is sure they will score every week, as opposed to another, with equal ability, who hesitates out of fear). Therefore, managers spend a lot of time focussing on this. They certainly try to create a positive environment around the squad. This is something that those of us who have run drama workshops know something about too (especially if you are working with low confidence participants in the community). You have to ease them into it. One of the tools at your disposal is to make it a very positive environment. I did a week-long series of workshops in Bulgaria with adults with a learning disability and the only words I learnt to say in the Bulgarian language were “good”, “great”, “excellent”, etc. The difference between the timid group at the start and the noisy group at the end was immense. So much so that our hosts from Varna kept asking me what the secret was. All I could say to them was “I told them they were great!” A positive environment is key, therefore, to draw the best out of people (tempered with some specific pointers as to how to improve) and perhaps the positive noises that come out of a football club in pre-season rub off on the spectators.

The difficult thing for football fans though (as opposed to players or managers), is that they have no control over the outcome. It is a vicarious belief in someone else, acting on your behalf. Is this good for your mental health? What if it does go wrong and (like in 1988-89 and 2010-11) the team that you have invested some much emotion into, let you down? Well, then, at least you can blame them and not yourself for what went wrong. You are cushioned from the psychological blow of failure, whereas the players are not.

Perhaps this ‘distancing’ gives us football fans a freer reign to be optimistic, at the start of the season, therefore. Perhaps we can invest more hope in the team, because ultimately we have a safety valve that protects us from great disappointment. The same distancing effect probably leads to fans, at a later point, talking total sh#t on phone-ins or on social media, because then they can blame other people rather than themselves for what has gone wrong (“they are not fit to wear the shirt!” carries with it the suggestion that the spectators are). They can also say what the manager should do, safe in the knowledge that their views are never going to be tested.

The start of a new season, though, is that moment in time when anything is possible. The slate has been wiped clean and we are starting again. It’s a unique moment for us all. It is a moment of great hope and optimism. When Leicester came to Upton Park for our first home game of 2015-16, we were disappointed to lose 2-1; a result that tempered our enthusisam after a 2-0 victory at Arsenal the week before. I doubt anyone in the ground thought then that Leicester would go on to win the league. Now, the memory of that, helps us to dream. Maybe this year will be our time… (to finish 8th)!

So the start of the season is a unique moment of optimism for football fans. It is a time to dream and imagine a better world. Wouldnt it be great if it also heralded a moment for us to think more positively about our lives too? A chance to see the potential in the year ahead. It would also be good for our mental health.