Football can stop the hate and bring joy if we want success but don’t expect to win | Football

One of my father-in-law’s favourite aphorisms is “expect nothing and you’ll never be disappointed”. Although not the most positive outlook on life, there is a kernel of truth in his wisdom.

Mo Gawdat, in his book Solve for Happy, discusses why people are happy or unhappy, content or dissatisfied, calm or frustrated in any given situation. He believes the primary factor is how we set our expectations in life, driven partly by the illusion of control against a backdrop of a universe whose natural state is “entropy and chaos”. He states that “happiness is equal or greater than the perception of the events of your life minus your expectations”. In summary, whether “life is going my way”. Importantly he follows on: “It doesn’t really matter what life is, your happiness is defined by whether you are OK with it.”

Reflecting on the nature of different expectations in football, so much anger, disappointment and frustration arise when our expectations are out of step with reality. As the World Cup is now firmly under way, people’s expectations about how England should perform are high after the emphatic 6-2 result against Iran and an exuberant 3-0 victory against Wales. In the moment experiences rarely choose to connect with our rationality so the soporific US match is now merely an aberration. We can now restate our history as inventors of the game and our perceived inheritance as the natural home of the World Cup, an expectation inconsistent with the data pointing to a solitary win more than fifty years ago.

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Even before a ball was kicked, there was moral outrage around the expectations we have of the host country, Qatar. Football clearly has the power to open a dialogue when our expectations of another nation’s values do not align entirely with our own. As Qatar has put itself on the world stage through the World Cup, it has rightly opened itself up to the debate on issues such as LGBTQ+ rights and the treatment of migrant workers. Even if these are not new challenges just in the Middle East, the debate is now front of mind and has allowed us to think about our own track record as well. For example, it is estimated there may be 136,000 modern slaves the UK. Equally, the fact there are few openly gay male footballers in the UK tells us we have some way to go.

It is clear that football holds a unique place in people’s lives and all supporters have expectations about the game and each other. The exchange of time and money bestows a right for supporters to express their opinions and expectations for their national team or local club. We have witnessed the paradox of expectations as the emotional immediacy of results can run up against the rational reality of a long-term commitment. Coming together on matchday is about the immediacy of the result but in the long term there is an immutable relationship supporters have to their team and desire for it to continue to exist.

The majority of supporters at Grimsby I speak to are committed to the long-term journey but inevitably some supporters are on a “hedonic treadmill”, focusing on what is missing rather than what we have together. As a mindset this is exactly what Gawdat describes. Eighteen months ago Grimsby were relegated from League Two, saddled with a squad and debt which needed remedial attention. In spite of that we were able to bounce back into the EFL at the first time of asking. We now sit mid-table in a competitive league that is a step up in terms of quality and organisation from the National League. To see the alternate reality we only have to look 40 miles down the M180 to Scunthorpe, recently relegated, currently second from bottom of the National League and looking for an investor to take on the club and its ongoing losses.

I was thinking about these expectations at a recent game when we went 1-0 down after five minutes. Someone in my earshot started shouting negatively and I wondered what their expectations were when they go to a match. That no one will ever score against us, that we will never lose, never have an off day? We all clearly want to win every game but that is an unrealistic expectation. The minimum requirement is we see effort and commitment from our team; a sense that as a club we are committed to trying to continually improve all areas of the organisation, the infrastructure, the capabilities and the ambition; all while trying to make the business sustainable.

I do not expect us to win every match, particularly in a first season back in League Two. We know football is a game of fine margins and sometimes you win and play badly, sometimes you lose when you play well, and everything in between. If we can guarantee and commit to give our best to try to keep improving on league position each year in a way that is sustainable that will be success. When we move on as shareholders it is important the business does not crumble or go into administration, because no one will buy an unprofitable, debt-laden club. Unrealistic expectations are the enemy of joy and short-term changes often offer an illusion of control and improvement.

As Gawdat indicates, although we do not have control over all of the events in our lives, we do have control over how we set our expectations and how we react to events. Instead of being the place where you go to express your anger at life the first chance you get, football could be the place where you go to build relationships, to imagine and make real what a happier life looks like through connections. I go to games wanting to win but not expecting it every week. I do go to have the world’s best fish and chips, to be around my brothers, my friends, and the growing community of Grimsby supporters that share the club’s values, love the town and are committed to the journey even when we lose the odd game or two. Whereas the result can affect our moods, it’s the long-term improvements and the relationships that will fuel our souls.

Football clubs should stand for something, and at Grimsby we’re aiming high | Football

There are several reasons to choose a football team to support but more often than not your club chooses you. Proximity to where you are born, live or a family inheritance are the most likely reasons to bind you to club colours. For those too young to know better, success can be alluring. As a nine-year-old, I flirted briefly with supporting Nottingham Forest, at a time when they won back‑to‑back European Cups in 1979 and 1980, but it was like a holiday romance that faded quickly through a lack of real-world contact.

For international fans, I can understand it can be different and more of a free choice. You are buying into a brand or product experience intermediated through the internet or TV. To simply choose a Premier League team because they are successful seems insubstantial, though. It’s a consumer’s approach to something that requires no real commitment if a team are at the top of their game. That’s why I was so compelled by how Lars Olav Sæther, a Grimsby Town fan based in Norway, felt destiny calling him to our club.

As a young boy, Lars was walking along the cliffs near his home in Hvaler when he noticed a styrofoam box had been washed ashore with the word “Grimsby” in large letters printed along its side. Jostein Jensen, another Norwegian supporter, alerted me to Lars’s story and concluded: “After looking into encyclopaedias he found out that Grimsby was one of UK’s largest fishing ports. He also found out that the town had a football team, since then he has followed the club.” Whatever way you come to identify with a team, it creates a psychological continuity as we grow older. Subsuming the club’s history into your own story can act as what the writer and comedian Kevin Day calls “the baseline to your life”.

Kwame Anthony Appiah says our identity evolves through a complex negotiation between the past, present and future.

In his book The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity he sets out how our identity is often mistakenly thought to be an immutable, fixed point in space and time. Although there are clearly variables that are more fixed – such as location of birth, ethnicity, family history – the way our identity is understood and appreciated is always on the move and relational. “Identities, for the people who have them, are not inert facts; they are living guides.” As our values shape our identity, these can also be malleable. As Appiah states: “Values aren’t a birthright: you need to keep caring about them.”

Forest Green owner Dale Vince
Owner Dale Vince has built Forest Green’s values to focus on green issues as the first carbon-neutral club in the world. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Several football clubs have long been associated with setting clear values and boundaries about what it means to support them. The cultural and geographical commitment of Barcelona in Catalonia or Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad in the Basque region, the commitment to purpose-driven football of FC Nordsjælland or the commitment to political ideals (usually anti-fascist) of clubs such as Rayo Vallecano or St Pauli. Closer to home there are religious lines that support of Celtic or Rangers delineate. These categories can be as divisive as they can be positive but they set a clear choice for supporters. Unless you look at Forest Green Rovers, who, thanks to Dale Vince, are “the world’s greenest club”, it seems like a missed opportunity that most English teams seem to lack the understanding of their power to affect real change. What we identify with matters and by extension clubs can play an active role and be a visible beacon for our country’s inclusive values.

In their 2017 paper One team, one nation: Football, ethnic identity, and conflict in Africa, Emilio Depetris‑Chauvin and Ruben Durante demonstrated the positive effect of national football results in reducing intra-tribal conflict. Individuals interviewed in the days after a victory of their national team were “less likely to report a strong sense of ethnic identity and more likely to trust people of other ethnicities than those interviewed just before”.

Football clubs represent a regular opportunity to test and calibrate our values and what we all care about when we come together. Each week, up and down the UK, thousands of people come together to share in what Lord Maurice Glasman calls our “common life”. In doing so we test the boundaries of our tolerance and collectively decide what matters. Every week at our games we see families, friends and acquaintances come together, not just for football but for the sense of community and continuity in our lives that the live game creates. Around the ground and online, the dialogue and debate come alive as we see what the club means to people.

It is a democratic process and so it’s imperfect, it can be noisy and it’s always evolving, but together communities decide the boundaries of what matters and what the collective identity should be. When I hear some fans say you don’t have to agree with the values of an organisation to be part of it, I couldn’t disagree more. It’s the difference between a fan and a supporter to me, a passive consumed experience versus those who truly want the club to stand for something and not just begin and end with the referee’s whistle; to reflect a view of the world that they want for themselves and the places they love. As Appiah states: “Identities work only because, once they get their grip on us, they command us, speaking to us as an inner voice; and because others, seeing who they think we are, call on us, too.”

At Grimsby Town we are aspiring to become a B Corp to structurally embed our values and therefore obligations, not just to shareholders but to our community and the environment. By setting clear standards and values it opens a space for the required dialogue with our supporters and gives anyone associated with our club a chance to see their values reflected back in what the club (and by extension the town) represents. In doing this, we can collectively help to increase the confidence and aspiration in our town and help create the escape velocity needed from the narrative of industrial decline.

Jason Stockwood is the chairman of Grimsby Town