When your train to a game you’re expecting to lose is delayed, and the London Underground network that’s supposed to get you home following the game (which you did indeed lose) takes about three times as long as it should, you’ve a long time to wonder what the hell you’ve just done with your Saturday. Too long, arguably.
And there comes a point where you stop asking yourself “why?” rhetorically, and start meaning it as a genuine interrogative. “Why?” Why have I actually done this? OK, it’s good to see Ross and Karen, and catch up, and we discovered a new Shepherd Neame autumn beer. But I could do that any time I wanted to go back to Bristol for pure fun. And OK, there’s all the stuff about getting lows so you appreciate highs – but I reckon I’ve enough lows banked now, thanks, and when I’m as certain as I was before this one how it’d turn out I’m throwing good afternoons after bad.
So as one reason after another goes by you wonder whether this is in fact a psychological thing. You start to wonder whether you’re actually addicted. Whether you’re not stopping because you can’t. Because your brain won’t let you.
So I decided to test whether this is in fact the case. I found two good definitions of “addiction”, here and here. They are:
“the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.”
“compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly : persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful”
The key factors, then, are: being enslaved; habit or practice; something habit-forming; severe trauma on cessation; developing tolerance; physiological symptoms on withdrawal; and something known by the user to be harmful.
How many out of 7 has football got?
I probably do feel a bit enslaved sometimes, toiling across the country, handing over money when I could be spending it on other things. But I don’t go to every single game, not even every one I really could. And I do enjoy a lot of the day when I go, I like the company, the chance to show off my football knowledge a bit, and taking the support of City out I do enjoy watching games of football. Honest. Do I can’t call myself “enslaved” in good conscience.
2. Habit / practice
The 12.00 out of Temple Meads. Football Weekly on the train. A bacon sandwich at the other end. The bus, £1 return (good value). The seats at the back. A Mars bar and a bottle of Coke at the offy. Dolman, Block H, Row M, Seat 5. Defeat in a mediocre game of football. The 6.00 back to London. A gnawing sense of existential angst.
3. Something habit-forming
Slightly circular part of the definition, this – so one can only be addicted to something that one can be addicted to? Chicken and egg, too – did football form the habit in me or am I the sort of person who likes habits?
I don’t normally have an addictive personality (no really) and football’s clearly fomented a habit, so yes, I say it is habit-forming.
4. Severe trauma
I’m told that I’m very difficult to have in the house when football’s not on, and I do like a World Cup to break up my summer. I will confess to a sense of emptiness, but that’s probably more to do with the breaking of the habit than anything genuinely vital being missing – it’s particularly so when we end a season strongly, so I’m also missing that endorphin burst of a goal. This is probably the one to which a positive answer would lead to well-founded questions about my mental state. Fortunately, then, it’s a no.
I remember crying with Gazza in 1990 when Chris Waddle kicked the ball into the Turin night. In comparison, the comforting sense of inevitability that took hold of me when Hull opened the scoring on Saturday was a warm, familiar blanket of gloom. “Tolerant”? I’d say “conditioned” like Alex in Clockwork Orange, but the principle’s very much the same.
6. Physiological symptoms on withdrawal
I don’t get the shakes – in fact, my heart rate’s probably more stable. I don’t have difficulty sleeping – in fact I probably sleep better. I don’t put on weight – I eat better at weekends so I suspect I lose it.
But just because these aren’t the typical symptoms, they’re still clear changes between my during-season and close-season physiognomy, right? I think this is a yes.
7. Something I know to be harmful
I wonder about this quite a lot. The stress, the complete lack of control over my own emotions, the blood pressure, the mood swings... it can’t be adding years to my life, can it? And yeah, when you feel good you feel like you can live forever – but the same’s almost certainly true of heroin, and it’s really, really not accurate.
So that’s quite a high addiction level for football. Not 100%, fortunately, so I don’t feel that on the back of this unscientific analysis I have to check in that the priory. But football does give you the mindnumbing highs that you keep trying to recapture. It does give you the burnt-out feeling inside that you need another hit to move on from. And it does get its fingers in your brain.
As I type this, I’m seeing Twitter go mad for Arsenal beating Reading 7-5. And all I can think is... are there highlights? Shall I put on Sky Sports News? How can I see this?
It’s not sensible. But then, if we only did sensible things that were harmless, that you could drop easily and that didn’t have any emotional consequences, what a dull world it would be.
I’ll take the spice football adds. And I’ll take that 2/7 margin of error to reassure me that I’m not totally the worse for doing so.