Optimism bias

So that’s it. Another season finished. Agonisingly, we didn’t make it into the play-offs, purely on the basis of goal difference. No-one can complain at the effort the team put in, but you can’t help thinking about what might have been. 

The football supporter’s life is full of such moments. We start each season full of optimism, trying to see the best in the playing staff, believing the coach’s assurances about the season ahead, hoping that the ownership will deliver. And then, as the season progresses, optimism gets into hand-to-hand combat with realism and, if things are going really badly, pessimism.  As an Arsenal-supporting friend said, ‘It’s the hope that kills you’.

Unless, of course, it all goes well. In my couple of decades of supporting Charlton Athletic, I can remember seasons when my confidence didn’t dip at any point. One was Chris Powell’s League One winning season of 2011-12, when the mood was set from the first game (‘actually, we were pretty good, weren’t we?’ said a surprised and otherwise perpetually pessimistic Charlton-supporting friend) and continued undimmed till the moment we lifted the trophy the following May. 

It’s a bit of a generalisation – and some may take me to task for saying this – but football supporters are generally most in their element when things are either going very well or very badly. Very well – why not enjoy it? Very badly – good, something to moan about. Better still, something to moan about collectively. Rather like ‘the country’s going to the dogs’ conversations, there’s a certain relish in analysing a poor run of form with friends. 

Of course, football supporters often have very real things to complain about. The plight of clubs like Bury is shocking, with very real impact not just on the supporters, but also on local communities. It’s a bit of a cliché, but football really is about the fans, demonstrated perhaps by the recent rapid demise of the European Super League. Without the fans, a football club is just a profit and loss account, and nobody’s going to get excited about that. 

For the fan, matchday is often an escape from the cares of day-to-day life. They feel a sense of belonging to their particular footballing tribe. But it goes deeper than even that, a thread that runs through and adds meaning to a supporter’s life. It’s not too strong to use the word ‘family’.

When I think of Charlton, I think not only of the games and the seasons, but of the part of South East London in which I live, the club’s work in the community, the personalities associated with the club and a rich history going back to the Thameside factories of the early 20th Century. It reaches out into other aspects of culture, such as the fact that the Italian writer and industrialist Italo Svevo lived in Charlton and supported the club. I guess this highlights that culture isn’t divided up into parcels: it’s interwoven through our lives.

Shostakovich quote in stairwell of main stand at Mansfield Town FC

The other thing about football is that it’s very much like life itself. You never know how it’s going to turn out. The outcome is subject to so many factors – the build-up, the players sidelined through injury, the chemistry between the playing staff, the extent to which the coach has conveyed their intent (and it’s realised on the pitch), the decisions taken by the officials, where the team is at psychologically, the influence of ‘home’ or ‘away’. Sometimes you’ll be indifferent to the outcome, sometimes disappointed, sometimes elated. Very much like life itself, at times perhaps too much so. 

Football’s very unpredictability is what draws you in. The hurt when it turns out badly is very real. I’ve learned to shield myself from it after a defeat, something I’ve been able to transfer over into the rest of life. I guess it’s an association football version of Stoicism. The glass is neither half full nor half empty – it’s just a glass. 

But I carry a victory with me for days afterwards. It’s something you think back to, a good feeling that fades only slowly, and that feeds your optimism about the next game.

At season’s end, you’ve been through a journey. This year it’s been a particularly odd one, with empty stadia and the consequent loss of the visceral experience of supporting your team in person. The singing, the chants, the collective shift to the edge of the seat as an attack progresses or the shared holding of breath as the opposition are about to take a penalty. These things have been absent. We’ve compensated to a degree by Zooming with friends and WhatsApping during games, but it’s not quite the same. 

It’s also not been possible to get chilled to the bone on a dank February night, a necessary sacrifice as we demonstrate our eager, tribal allegiance to the team. As much as I’ve enjoyed streamed coverage of matches home and away – and Charlton’s, by the way, has been excellent – I would have traded it at any point for the experience of squeezing through the turnstiles (and it has to be the ones on the right after we got relegated that season when I started going through the ones on the left), queuing to buy a pie and a cup of tea, watching the rain sheet past the floodlights. 

And so it doesn’t take long after season’s end for the mood to turn to optimism again. The team rebuilds during the summer; the fixture list appears and gets transferred into diaries; the pre-season schedule hints at what might be possible in the season to come; season tickets drop through letterboxes; every pronouncement by owner and manager is scrutinised for new insights. 

And then that glorious first home fixture, even more compelling this year as (we hope) a suitably vaccinated and tested crowd passes through the turnstiles. 

Don’t worry, it’s all going to be alright. This year it’ll all come good. This year…

Photo by Abdullah Ghatasheh on Pexels.com

2 thoughts on “Optimism bias

  1. Confirmation bias too perhaps for fans when appealing for decisions they seem to know are compellingly-evidenced against them (throw-ins, corners etc) but still try it on. Why when it makes their other views on the game then seem highly suspect? Ritual of gamesmanship?

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    1. I think that’s true, Struan, but also part of the individual’s eternal search for justice – there’s no bigger talking point than the penalty that wasn’t given or the goal scored from an offside position. But often, the fans know full well that they’re trying it on!

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