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!”