Headers and Headspace: Football rituals and mental health

Nando Mendy and Manny Duku

Photo: Lesley Fleming Photography

When you're a supporter of a football club, you quickly become aware of how the game isn't just tribal but also ritualistic. For myself, a typical match day means leaving for Kirkcaldy 40 minutes before kick-off. It's a trudge up Pratt Street, the familiar cry of "50/50 drewn at half time" before the click and rattle of the turnstile.

After a trip to grab a pie and a drink, it's an ascent into what I've learned is pretty much a sort of chaotic comfort zone. I'll shuffle past a few folk and then onto the familiar "hullos" with the folk who sit around me often accompanied by "Did you get along to that last week?" if there's been an away trip. The teams usually come out to "Dancing in the Streets" (either the Jagger/Bowie combination or Martha and the Vandellas). Thousands will have had the same trudge up Stark's Park before and (hopefully) many more will have the same experience. East Fife and Dunfermline fans probably have the same with Telstar and Into the Valley in their own grounds. Throughout the pyramid it's an experience we all know and love.

These rituals are part of the reason Scottish football is so special and throughout 2020 it's something which all fans have sorely missed. I can only speak for my own experiences but there's something about having a place to go on your Saturday afternoon and it's difficult contemplating life without it. It all sounds very simplistic but things seems a lot more straight forward when you're staring over a pitch, watching 22 players of varying qualities hoping that you'll see something magical.

There's a reassuring afterthought where you know that win, lose or draw you'll see the same people each week who share a common interest. You might not know their names, just faces who you'll nod at and occasionally end up bumping into when a 90th minute volley flies in off a crossbar and you're all in some mad, collective adrenaline fuelled joy. You'll go through the good, the bad, and the terrible all together with unquestioning commitment. You meet fans of other teams and quickly regale each other of stories from across the 42 grounds - your own club is completely unique to you but every fan of every team will feel the same.

I doubt I'm alone when I say that football has been somewhat therapeutic for me. A bad week at work or home is quickly forgotten about when you attend a match regardless of how your team perform. In life, you'll meet people on your journey (whether at school, further education or your work) and then fall out of contact if you part ways. It happens naturally. Social media has probably made this worse to a degree as you're still 'connected' somewhat but might not speak with any frequency if at all. The football stadium gives you a chance to meet new characters with a shared passion. On my trips to away games I've met dozens of brilliant characters and can't recall any negative experiences with those I've gotten to know.

The current situation has changed the dynamic. Interactions are now done mostly online. Conversations on the concourse have been replaced with user names on club streams and the "That was a bit shite last week" now turns into a 5 hour old twitter discussion about how preseason games are meaningless which you lost interest in about 15 minutes after your initial half-hearted reply. Fans, clubs and players alike are all trying their hardest to adapt though it's quite clear each party would rather that the grounds were opened back up as soon as possible. It really is a test of the cliche "football without the fans is nothing".

Unfortunately, the current situation has created an issue. Football offers an escape route for many people from day to day issues and problems which are occurring in every day life. Over the last few years, there has been a surge in awareness relating to mental health. Social media has transformed the world for good in many ways but it can be difficult for people to watch as you see your peers show off seemingly successful lifestyles on Instagram without any apparent negatives. It can be really hard to find your place in a society where many things are based around instant gratification and apparent success.

Since the start of lockdown, I've seen numerous cases where individuals have opened up on social media, sometimes expressing that they're in a really dark place. The helplessness can often feel overwhelming and it unfortunately isn't uncommon to see young adults either mourning the loss of their friends or loved ones, or even suggesting that they're contemplating suicide.

The response is almost always unanimous: people will always try to understand and help you if you talk to them: don't give up. From my own experiences, this couldn't be more true. One of the difficulties when speaking about mental health is that there isn't a cut off point between being depressed and being fine - it's a very broad emotional spectrum and it's difficult to describe as people suffer in different ways. I've had experiences where issues have weighed heavily on my mind which I refused to speak to family and friends about. By taking the time to share how I'm feeling I've felt a huge relief.

Scottish football is a prime example where speaking out is becoming more common. Numerous players at different levels have taken the time to raise awareness about the importance of mental health in what can be an inhospitable environment. Among others Christian Nade, David Weatherston and David Cox have all shown tremendous courage to take the time to talk to the media about their own struggles with each of them having their own unique situation or pressure. Nade was completely transparent about his situation when speaking to the media in October 2018. Similarly, Cox spoke about how he had considered suicide and hadconsidering walking away from the game following derogatory. Weatherston discussed his pre-match anxiety and depression in a post he made to his blog in February 2018.

Tragically, former Scotland under-21 international Chris Mitchell took his own life in 2016 after retiring from the game through injury. Kris Boyd has also been transparent about the death of his younger brother, and both he and Mitchell's family have each set up individual charities to promote mental health awareness (links to each website below).

Mental health in sport is a two way street. While games can be therapeutic for fans, it's easy to forget that the sport revolves around 22 men, the coaching staff and three officials who each have their own families to look after, mortgages and rent to pay and livelihoods. Each person will have a life away from the game and with one year deals being common place there's a lot of pressure riding on people.

It's important for fans to have a degree of self awareness over this. It might seem like a point which lacks originality (I'd be a bit concerned if successes at my work were met with 9 other people jumping on top of me) but most people don't want to get abused for doing their job. While it should be a privilege for players to be making a professional career from sport, it doesn't mean that their mental health should be used as a sacrificial lamb to appease fans baying for blood on the back of what might be deemed as poor performances.

In a recent interview, Raith chairman John Sim had a blunt message for the Rovers fans:

"Don't boo players before they come on the park...I think we're very hard to please and I include myself for that...I've heard a number of the players and the manager say about how important support from the terraces can be and maybe the time for criticism is in the 200 Club after."

Sim was referring to a game against Forfar when McGlynn brought on forward Lewis Allan as a substitute only to be greeted by jeers. Speaking after a 1-0 win against Airdrie, Kyle Benedictus mentioned how the crowd at the Airdrie game was vital in the win and that the club needed more displays of unity, stating that the forward had been left speechless in the dressing room after the game. Allan didn't feature during the run in and subsequently left the club to join Berwick Rangers while studying for an MBA. While this might have been a small number of fans, Sim and Benedictus do have illustrate the point that some fans don't realise how much influence they can have on mentality.

Pretty much every person I know loves a shout at the football but there's a point where a line should be drawn. For all of the comedy of the shouts (particularly the Ayr fans trying their hardest to put Stephen Dobbie off in his penalty run up by questioning his manhood), things can quickly turn sour. While I completely respect the right of fans to air their opinions, it's vital to make sure people are aware that their shout or booing can go on long after the full time whistle.

As with most things in life, it's always important to remember the positives and negatives when chatting about football and mental health. I've seen a lot of people on Twitter talking about how much they miss their Saturday afternoon ritual. Now more than ever, I'd encourage people to talk to others if they're struggling mentally: take the time to share how you're getting on with your friends and family.


I've shared below a few links below which might be of interest:

The Kris Boyd Charity:

Chris Mitchell Foundation:

Scottish Association for Mental Health:


Anxiety UK:

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