Don’t take away our football doublethink; we need it

Date published: Friday 16th November 2018 3:33

‘The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them…To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary.’

During a Premier League campaign in which the gap between the top and the bottom feels wider than ever, in which the idea of your club breaking through the stasis of whatever mini-league you’re in feels impossible, George Orwell’s doublethink has become an indispensable necessity.

Unless you support one of the ‘big six’, all of whom can at least fantasise about rising to the top of the pile, being a football fan means coming to terms with an insurmountable barrier that, when you really think about it, makes competitive football meaningless. What’s the point of pushing for promotion from the Championship if all you can hope for is the dull mediocrity of mid-table? Why does our club scoring a last-minute winner still bring us joy when upward trajectory will inevitably hit that brick wall?

Although being a football fan is about community and interconnectedness for most of us, underneath it all is the hope of climbing the ranks. Sport’s popularity is at least partly because it offers the certainty of hierarchies and the clarity of plot that’s so difficult to grasp in the messiness of real life. Without the potential to rise to the very top the competitiveness disintegrates – at which point you may as well be watching a bunch of friendlies. And nobody cares about friendlies.

How much longer can this doublethink last? Leicester City’s miracle title win certainly helped us believe in the unbelievable, helped us pretend our club’s results matter even when they essentially cannot. But it just won’t happen again: the real odds were probably much longer than the 5000/1 picked by betting companies not to accurately reflect the statistical likelihood but to encourage gambling on unthinkable outcomes. In fact, if the Premier League bosses wanted to manufacture a way to maintain the elite’s superiority without the little people losing interest, staging a Leicester miracle would be the perfect plan.

The troubling new reality has been drawn into focus this season for Swansea City fans, who, like Aston Villa the year before, often note on social media that Championship life is much more fun than the Premier League. Winning feels good, and the challenge of a promotion push is far more exciting than slumping towards relegation. This is doublethink at its most blindly fervent. If the ceiling of achievement is Premier League survival – which is boring – then how on earth can the upward journey to that point still hold meaning? It’s an existential dilemma that all football fans need to seriously consider.

For those supporters who don’t believe the results are significant – for whom the long journeys to away grounds and the cultural identity of fandom are all that matters – it’s worth considering the less tangible implications of a club floating between mediocrity and a slightly worse mediocrity. If a football club reflects the wider community, if our identities are woven into the fabric of the stadiums and crests that cradled us from early childhood, then what is the subconscious effect of our clubs’ paralysis? Are we really immune to catching by osmosis the existential angst? Will the train journeys on Saturday afternoons fall silent when we come to realise, through painful experience, that to go up is to tread water is to go down – and that’s all league football is? If all this sounds a little lofty, it’s worth considering exactly why we love the FA Cup so much, exactly why third-round shocks are described as magic. It’s the hope – limitless, childlike – that drives us.

These questions feel more pertinent than ever in light of leaks detailing possible plans for a European Super League. Its creation would permanently lock the lower clubs out of the elite, an endgame to the current predicament that has obvious ramifications on the value of domestic football and the self-worth of our local clubs. But a Super League without relegation would simply confirm in legislation what already exists; promotion to the top table is already impossible, so why not shatter the delusion by making it official?

Football is an escape. Its narratives are soothing. The highs and lows are essentially risk-free (however real the pain) – a form of role-play that has essential therapeutic value. But in the modern era, to continue with our emotional investment requires a painful denial of the emptiness of the competition. Perhaps when we object so strongly to the Super League it is not through fear of losing football’s soul once and for all, but fear of losing the ability to delude ourselves that progression to the top is still technically attainable. Don’t take away our doublethink. We need it.

Alex Keble

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