The 5 Stages of Footballing Grief

This man is in “Disbelief” and is about to transition to “Scapegoating.”

Psychologists identify the stages we go through when grieving. It’s how we come to terms with terrible loss such as the death of a loved-one or the break-up of a cherished relationship.

The stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

Football supporters spend an inordinate amount of time grieving, but ours is a very particular kind of grief and our ‘5 Stages’ are different: we go through them much more quickly… and much more often.

I have been pondering this since the humbling home defeat at the hands of Aston Villa.

In that game we were not only out-played, out-thought and out-fought, we did not even look like a team of players who gave a toss. Worrying indeed.

But time, as they say, is a great healer. With the perspective of almost a week I have a different view of that defeat. I suppose I have been through the 5 Stages of Footballing Grief:

  1. Delusional Optimism: a supporter’s grief cannot exist without this pre-requisite. No matter how bad things are we go into pretty much every game thinking we might win. Even those of our friends who relish being the voice of doom before every match (“I’ve bet on the opposition to win 4-0”) are only doing that because they care too much to admit their secret hopes. No matter how unfancied a team, its supporters will always think they have a chance “if we get a bit of luck… if everyone plays out of their skin… if the opponents’ best player pulls a hammy…” Welling United versus Barcelona? The Welling fans will be saying: “If we keep 10 men behind the ball and try and get one from a set piece… you never know.”
  2. Disbelief: inevitably following on from No. 1, Disbelief kicks in when our optimism does indeed turn out to have been delusional. This second stage usually occurs after the final whistle but has been known to set in by half time or, in severe cases, within minutes of the kick off. An embarrassing defeat, hopes shattered, old faults returning like a recurring dose of diarrhoea… all these symptoms lead to that overpowering sense of “WTF? How could this have happened? I thought we’d sorted out our defence? This same starting eleven did so well only a week ago to beat XYZ…”
  3. Scapegoating: this is the football fan’s version of “Anger” in the traditional 5 Stages of Grief. We don’t just get angry. We get angry and almost immediately flip into saying: “It was HIS fault!”. The HIM in question could be anyone from the manager to the owners, the goalkeeper, the dodgy centre back, the goal shy striker or the mysteriously underperforming “world class creative player.” Arsenal fans are particularly fond of Stage 3. Over the years Denilson, Eboue, Fabianski, Almunia, Gallas, Mustafi, Xhaka, Luiz, Ozil, Walcott and others too many to mention have been ushered into the great Arsenal FC Goat Enclosure.
  4. Over-reaction: once we have gotten through slagging off the culprit, we pivot quite quickly into utter catastrophism. We’ve had a bad performance and result? Oh God! We need a complete rebuild… we need to sell everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, even that stupid dinosaur bloke… Champions League spots? Do me a favour, we’re in a relegation battle… This is the worst Arsenal team I’ve ever seen and I’ve been supporting them since the Woolwich days… we need a new manager. Perhaps the most acute form of this condition (which thankfully emerges in only a minority of Grief sufferers) is: “I told you we should have got Mourinho.”
  5. Depression: the only one that we share with the traditional 5 Stages, although in our case it comes last, not second from last. We have usually managed to get through all the previous four stages within 24 hours of kick off and that’s when Depression kicks in. We have moved past catastrophism (we don’t really believe we’re going to get relegated) but there’s just a dull sense of disappointment and a nagging certainty that this season is going nowhere. Worse, we know that being an Arsenal supporter is a condition you’re stuck with for life, like webbed toes or sticky-out ears, so there’s no escape.

If this seems depressing I don’t mean it to be and there is, in fact, a silver lining.

Football’s great gift to the soul is that a new game comes round every few days (or every couple of weeks in the event of an irritating international break). And when a new game is on the horizon, we pretty quickly leave Stage 5 behind us and… yes, you’ve guessed it… we return to Delusional Optimism.

So, coming back to the Villa game, I have now gone through all five stages. After our win at Old Trafford my Delusional Optimism convinced me we would spank the Brummies; I sat open-mouthed with Disbelief as Grealish, Barkley and Watkins gave us a lesson in how to play effective, attractive football; I flipped instantly into Scapegoating Willian, whom I deemed to be our worst performer on a day of dreadful performances; I Over-reacted by harbouring thoughts such as “Arteta must have lost the dressing room” and “perhaps we are just a mid- to low-table team,” and, finally, I sank into the Depression of realising that this year’s Arsenal weren’t going to be what I hoped they would be and that it’s probably ridiculous to be dreaming of Top Four finishes.

But a week has passed and already I am starting to fantasise about the solutions Mikel Arteta has come up with while most of his players have been away on duty for their countries; I’m imagining the desire the team will have to put right the obvious aberration of the Villa performance; I am picturing us going to Elland Road and thrashing Leeds United, followed by a quick jaunt to Norway to crush the upstarts of Molde.

Delusional Optimism? You bet, but I love it.



16 Responses to The 5 Stages of Footballing Grief

  1. RA says:

    A beautiful analysis Rocky, and so true. 😁

    It is impossible to disagree with any of the main points you have explained, partly because that would start a sub-round of the grieving process.

    There are a couple of closely linked reactions that seem to be contradictory but fall into a growing phenomenon known as “virtue signalling” that can be very depressing to those who reluctantly have to read it.

    What the hell is virtue signalling when it rears its ugly face?

    A common definition is; “the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s own good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue and using it as a stick to beat up other people.

    An example of this is — “it’s noticeable how often virtue signalling consists of saying you hate 80% of things, or other people”.

    In practise the virtue signaller can delve into the ‘delusional optimist’ category by berating others who express a natural disappointment in a player – or – team – or the result.

    Conversely, another virtue signaller can berate others for remaining ‘ridiculously optimistic’ even after a team has received a severe spanking.

    The pessimist and the optimist are affected by their own DNA persona, and each group exasperates the other with the same accusation “they just won’t accept the truth when they hear/see it.

    That is human nature and forgivable, what sticks in the craw are the virtue signallers who lamely want to ridicule their fellows and falsely present themselves as wonderful, and beyond reproach.

    Fortunately, the regulars on here do not suffer from that calamitous attitude, and we only suffer it from unwanted visitors.

  2. TotalArsenal says:

    A masterpiece, Rocky. 👍🏿

  3. RockyLives says:

    Good day Redders and TA

    Excellent point about Virtue Signallers Redders.

    I often read comments with which I disagree, but I have never felt the urge to berate people for holding those opinions and I don’t understand those who do.

    It would actually be fantastically boring if we all held the same views on everything.

    And funnily enough, I have sometimes read an opinion or comment to which my initial reaction has been “rubbish” and then, on reflection, I have realised they have a point.

  4. allezkev says:

    Excellent, I did laugh at the Mourinho jibe, but shouldn’t the match officials and VAR be in the Goat Enclosure?

    Roll on the delusional optimism.

  5. RockyLives says:

    Haha – well said Kev. VAR, refs and linos are all officially admitted.

  6. omgarsenal says:

    RL…..great pop psychology reinterpretation of a classic psychological meme, but Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ paradigm is no longer accepted as being the definitive ¨stages¨ and in actual fact, she had many more (as many as 10 I remember) and were far more random.

  7. RockyLives says:

    Thanks OMG

    I’m sure I could up the stages of footy grieving to 10 if I put my mind to it… 😀

  8. jjgsol says:

    Excellent analysis.

    I think, however, you have missed out the 6th level, one which I am now in.

    This is the level that one reaches when the regular return to delusional optimism no longer happens.

    That 6th level can be entitled “indifference”.

    When you have been a fan for long enough to experience the highs and lows of the rollercoaster that is Arsenal you reach the stage when the delusional optimism no longer kicks in automatically and you move on to indifference.

    I don’t like being there, but, indifference is overpowering so that I have become indifferent to my indifference.

    At least the little glimmer of hope still resides in me, but it is by far insufficient to rekindle the optimism of the past.

    That glimmer of hope shows itself in the fact that I still spend time every day looking at the blogs to see what you all have to say.

    HIghlights, newspaper reports and even Adrian Clarke’s excellent Breakdowns have been confined to the “ignore it” world.

    I will grovel in my indifference until something special happens.

    I am not holding my breath (but still hope).

  9. RockyLives says:

    That’s a fair comment jjg.

    To be honest, I was becoming indifferent towards the end of the Emery period.

    I wrote a column about if memory serves. I said it was more upsetting to lose a game and not care than to lose a game and be thoroughly pissed off.

    My indifference went away when Arteta took over. I know you have a lot of doubts about whether we have really progressed under him, but the fact that I was really angry/miserable after the Villa game tells me I still haven’t hit rock bottom yet as a Gooner.

    I have more confidence and hope, but we all see things differently and time will no doubts make fools of us all in various ways.

  10. LB says:

    Still too depressed to comment.

  11. RockyLives says:

    Haha – don’t worry LB – you’ll be in Stage 5 by Saturday.

  12. RockyLives says:

    I meant Stage 1

  13. Pete the Thirst says:

    Stage 6: Bring out a new fashion brand…

    The lockdown is pickling brains. An Arsenal supporting friend suggested watching the Spurs documentary because Maureen was good in it. Right-o I’ll just get a pint of bleach to drink at the same time!

  14. RC78 says:

    Great post RockyLives. It is hard to assess where I am on this 5 stages but for sure I have accepted but I have not gone over it.

  15. LBG says:

    Thanks for the Post, Rocky!
    Gone through the LB stage and out the other end. Hope never to be inflicted by Jigsol’s “indifference”, probably making me a delusional optimist by nature.
    I have a small question for AAers. Is Partey more than a “holding”
    midfielder and, especially if/when we have Gabriel and Saliba behind him, should he be given more of a Vieira free licence?
    Sorry if this moves the footballing grief discussion on against wishes.
    Thought Saka was excellent last night. Use/gamble more on those dynamic forward passes. Believe in your ability to skin full backs either on the outside or with a quick one two, and tell Grealish to become a Gooner.

  16. RC78 says:

    New post everyone.

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