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The stadium of hate

This year’s Men’s Health Week focuses on stress. We want to get men talking about how they beat stress and I’ve been trying to think of a way to start the discussion. (It’s been quite stressful.)

Then on the night of Monday 2 May 2016, it came to me. Spurs visited Chelsea for a premier league football match the former had to win to keep their slim chances of succeeding the latter as league champions alive. The atmosphere was poisonous. Stamford Bridge was a stadium of hate. Both teams looked set to explode. As for the fans, every time a Spurs player approached the touchline, he was cascaded with foul abuse, even England striker Harry Kane was not immune.

You might think that as a Spurs fan I must be used to this. In the top rank of London football, Spurs are the side everybody hates. Arsenal, West Ham, Chelsea – their fans all want to beat Spurs more than anyone else. Factor in the fact that this season everybody else in the country has hated Tottenham too lest they deprive plucky Leicester of the league title and it’s enough to make even the strongest fan paranoid. 

The most profound emotions

Moreover, the game itself, a 2-2 draw with Spurs losing a two goal lead, was agony.

Now in my entire life, Spurs have never been within a sniff of winning the league and I didn’t think it was going to change this season so what really hurt was not losing the title which we never thought we’d win anyway but losing a two goal lead at Chelsea where we haven’t won since Gary Lineker was in short trousers. In fact, what makes this season for Spurs so hard to enjoy is that while we may finish in the top four (which any Spurs fan would have bitten your hand off for at the start of the season), we haven’t had a lot of success against any of those great rivals: two draws with Arsenal (who also knocked us out of the League Cup), two draws with Chelsea, our worst away performance of the season at West Ham. (And we threw away winning positions against Arsenal. Twice. And again against Chelsea. Only Spurs can do this etc etc. Shut up, Jim.)

Leicester City fan writer Julian Barnes reckons football is responsible for the most profound emotions a human male is capable of feeling. No wonder I’m feeling profoundly bad.

Sabre-toothed tiger induced stress

So what’s this got to do with men’s health week? Well, if Julian Barnes is right then looking at football – and the way male fans react to it – might tell us something about male emotions. What I do know is that I’m not the only fan feeling like this right now and I know also that every season, every Saturday in some cases, some set of fans somewhere are feeling equally bad.

For the duration of the game, I felt physically sick in every corner of my body. I was hot, I was cold, my heart was playing speeding rhythms: a sensible response to life-threatening sabre-toothed tiger-induced stress but not to sitting on your own couch in front of the TV for two hours. Now I just feel empty, void of every emotion except, and I think this is the point, self-hate. 

Thinking the unthinkable

I thought at half-time that Spurs would lose the two goal lead they had built up. You could call that pessimism or, less harshly, learning from experience but to me, the morning after, it’s something far less logical. I’m thinking the only reason it happened is because I thought it. I thought the unthinkable so it happened. That’s the kind of magical thinking of madness. The next stop is believing that God is talking to you. But how many other Spurs fans think and thought the same thing? If only we’d ‘believed’ more we would have won.

The truth is there’s nothing I could have done about it. (Believing or not believing never made anything true or false.) In truth there was nothing the players could have done about it. They did their best as most players usually do and they came up short as most teams usually do. (I’m not going to add ‘especially Spurs’ because it’s not about that.) There can only be one winner. Not being good enough is not a crime except that, in the male psyche, it often feels like one.

Every player and every fan is me

Inside the male mind – mine anyway – it’s frequently like the atmosphere inside the stadium of hate. The difference is that not only is every Spurs player me but so is everybody in the ground. So not only am I struggling to do something which is difficult anyway (and which is harder when you’re stressed and not thinking straight) but there are also a crowd of 40,000 mini-Jims on all sides screaming and shouting at me about how shit I am at it. 

At Stamford Bridge, did Chelsea, players and fans, get inside the Spurs players heads? I don’t know. Only the Spurs players know that – but nine bookings, yes nine, suggests that perhaps they did. I also don’t know how many abusive mini-mes there are chanting 'you're crap – and you know you are' inside the heads of professional footballers. They are supremely lucky to be talented at something that is so much fun and so lucrative but that doesn’t mean they’re any better balanced than the rest of us.

Silence the crowd

Now I can’t do anything about a pack of baying Chelsea supporters but I can try to turn off the abusive crowd in my head. If you can silence that particular crowd – or better still, play in front of cheering fans even when you’re performing like a jackass – then a real pack of baying Chelsea supporters – or any other hinderance you might encounter in your life – is far less likely to undermine you. And that applies whether you’re a fan or a player.

It might even apply to lucky old Julian Barnes himself. A great writer (in the premier league) and a fan of a premier league winning football team, does it get any better than that? Julian surely can't have a crowd of head demons slagging off every sentence, booing every comma, can he? One or two, I reckon.

  • Jim Pollard is editor of the Men's Health Forum website and a Spurs fan in a family of Chelsea supporters
  • More on Men's Health Week

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