The summer in a year that ends in an odd number can leave us all twiddling our thumbs for a few weeks. Here’s Mike Bayly on how this time of year can cause so much grief and anguish to those who slavishly follow football throughout the rest of the calendar.

The front cover of John Williams’s book ‘Red Men: Liverpool Football Club – The biography’, carries the image of a small child holding a football whilst looking reverently at the Anfield Gates. It is heavy with iconography. So much so, it may weigh an inferior tome down. Williams is no stranger to writing on football culture. As part of the ‘Leicester School’ of sociology, he produced a series of seminal works on football’s role in society, specifically around crowd disorder. A by-product of this research saw academic institutions readdress and explore the role of sport in society, in an attempt to understand what it meant to both individuals and their communities. Was sport, specifically football, something that existed in isolation, or was it so ingrained in our culture as to be permanently inextricable?

My first introduction to football as an academic subject came during my A-Levels, aided by a tutor with an unswerving passion for the game. We were shown an interview with a group of inner city children who explained away their evenings and weekends as an orgy of football participation. Every spare hour was devoted to watching, playing or talking about the game. Our initial task was to interpret what could be understood by this, to which most, including myself, passed off as mere obsession with the sport. After all, it was a viewpoint my classmates and I could all empathise with. The real point of course, is that this ‘obsession’ is something far more complex and intangible. For some people, indeed some communities, football is not simply a passion or a weekend activity, it is an all-consuming way of life. As Nick Hornby noted in Fever Pitch, “I fell in love with football suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring”. In cases where supporters’ ashes are strewn on the pitch of their club, it transcends the notion of ‘sport’ to something altogether more spiritual.

Little wonder then, that this time of year can cause so much grief and anguish to those who slavishly follow football. The months of May, June and July have been a historically harrowing time for its devotees, offering a chillingly baron sequence of weekends which need filling with second rate activities. To the casual observer, this may seem a trifle melodramatic, but ‘end of season blues’ have been formally documented in professional circles. A BBC article from 2003, suggests a football-free summer – especially one with no international tournament to permeate the gloom – could leave millions of fans with “end of season affective disorder”. Speaking in the article, psychologist John Castleton argues “football fans hold a deep rooted relationship with their team. To have that central pillar suddenly removed, could cause a quite obvious existential crisis.”

Whether a lack of football can cause clinical depression is a contentious issue. There is clearly a difference between someone who has a genuine medical affliction and someone who is simply suffering from an acute case of ennui. However, in John Crace’s book ‘Vertigo: One Football Fan’s Fear of Success’, the author talks openly about his mental health issues, and how he never feels safer, calmer or so worry free than when standing in the middle of a football crowd. With Albert Camus overtones, Crace concludes that after his mum and sisters, Spurs is the longest relationship he has ever had, teaching him “how to win and lose, and how to say hello and goodbye.”

As someone who has faced their own battles with depression, I would stop short of saying the pre-season, football holiday or whatever you want to call it, can induce such emotional paralysis. It does however, leave an emptiness which is almost impossible to fill. This may in part be a reflection of personal circumstance; as a single thirty something, my life might be occupied by a wife, children and adventurous hobbies and interests, but, for whatever reason, it isn’t. Whether a change to these circumstances would shift my mind-set is a moot point; there are too many defeated off season Saturday shoppers within the married demographic to suggest not.  The other option might be to find a new hobby to fill those lean months, but this remains a pursuit more in hope than expectation. In truth, nothing else comes close. Football is my oxygen, my emotional outlet. It fuels my need for adventure, companionship and solitude; to share the same, sometimes irrational or esoteric passions. One of my warmest memories of last season was standing on the touchlines at Hackney Marshes conversing with a stranger about the merits of the local non-League scene. Football is an extended, albeit ephemeral family, where my own peculiarities will always seem justified. Off season, I sometimes feel like the bloke at the party who spends all his time in the kitchen.

For pedantry’s sake, it’s worth noting that some lower league competitions do run past the ‘traditional’ end of the football season. The Middlesex County League at Step 7 of the National League System frequently features games in the last week of May, as documented in an excellent report on the putajumperon blog. For those who really can’t entertain an extended break from football, there are a sprinkling of local ‘Summer Leagues’ running throughout the UK, particularly in Scotland. However, a veneer of desperation forms on these words as I type them. Whilst I don’t subscribe to the slightly paradoxical idea that a break from football is conducive to maintaining an interest in it, there are limits. There are times I have questioned my own sanity around match choices, but I’m still unlikely to travel hundreds of miles to watch an obscure veteran’s league fixture just to get a summertime fix. At times it’s like an alcoholic draining the last warm and tasteless dregs from a glass in an effort to delay the inevitable comedown. That said, I do recall tuning into a Michael Schumacher (and friends) charity match a few years ago whilst on holiday in Spain with my girlfriend. We broke up soon afterwards.

For now, the wait continues. In the weeks until the first preseason friendlies kick in or the preliminary draws of the FA Cup are made, there is scope to utilise my Saturdays in a constructive manner, perhaps out of a guilt ridden one dimensional duty. On the other hand I take solace that I am no different to hundreds of thousands of other football fans across the country who  – rightly or wrongly – spend their summer months counting down to kick off. The start of the football season will mean different things to different people: renewing old acquaintances, anticipating away days to far flung places or standing watching the club you love with a mixture of hope and trepidation.

For me, I’ll just be glad to be home.

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