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:
- 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.”
- 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…”
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.