Forget winning streaks, it's the bad times that really fuse us together in football – and in life

Adrian Chiles
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

I once wrote a book that sought to explore exactly what goes on between the ears of football fans. It was called We Don’t Know What We’re Doing and will now cost you anything up to 5op to buy. I spoke to fellow West Brom fans who had never missed a game for 30 years and then just gave up and never went again; there were others who never thought about going until they were in their 40s and then went every week without fail, home and away. One young woman had been watching our team for her whole life without ever seeing us concede a goal. This she achieved by shutting her eyes tightly whenever the opposition looked close to scoring.

At the time, around 2003, I couldn’t find a great deal of academic research into psychological aspects of football fandom. Something I did come across was the work of Dr Sandy Wolfson at Northumbria University. She had done lots of interesting stuff on football’s contribution to social cohesion, pointing out that a match was a rare place where a bin man and a high court judge could be in each other’s company on the same level. She had also looked at how fans viewed their counterparts at other clubs as inferior in every aspect bar one: they considered themselves more passionate, funny, loyal and knowledgeable than fans of rival teams but, hilariously, not better-looking. Many years on, this still tickles me.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but my book was essentially about what psychologists call fusion. If you are exceptionally passionate and loyal to something, you are said to be psychologically fused with it. I have been educated in this concept recently by a cognitive anthropologist, Dr Martha Newson. She has studied football fans in some depth, even going so far as to harvest their saliva to see what their teams’ performances were doing to their cortisol levels, cortisol being related to stress. Just so you know, the more devoted – ie fused – you are to your team, the more your cortisol levels tend to rise.

I have been intrigued by her latest research, led by the universities of Kent and Oxford, into the differences between supporters of successful and less successful teams. Which, she set out to discover, are more fused with their clubs?

As a fan of one of the underachieving clubs that they studied, the results surprise me not a jot: followers of the most successful clubs are less devoted to their clubs than long-suffering fans of the likes of West Brom, Crystal Palace, Norwich and Sunderland. When asked if they would be prepared to sacrifice nothing less than their lives for their fellow supporters, more than a third of Palace fans said they would. In contrast, fewer than 10% of Arsenal fans were prepared to do so. Now I should say that while many of my fellow West Brom fans are very dear to me, and there is not much I wouldn’t do for a few of them, I am not sure I can think of any outside my own family I would lay down my life for.

That may well mark me down as a bit of a lightweight but, trust me, I am as fused as fused can be. And the fascinating conclusion Newson’s research leads us to is that sharing bad times is more bonding than sharing good times; euphoria is all every well but it’s dysphoria, essentially its opposite, that tends to bring us together. This, you would hope, might be a positive outcome of the pandemic, given that all seven billion of us on the planet are going through the same thing. My cognitive anthropologist friend takes this point but quotes me a line from a brilliant poem by Damian Barr that seems to me to embrace nothing less than the biggest truth about humanity itself: “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.”

I think anthropology might be my next lockdown hobby; I’ve made enough sourdough bread for one lifetime.

• Adrian Chiles is a Guardian columnist