On World Mental Health Day, we share an article originally featured in the ACN print fanzine by Maddie Mackenzie, about OCD and her relationship with Norwich City.
Every football fan has experienced the overwhelmingly positivity the sport can provide its supporters. Regardless of whether your team is pushing for a European spot or languishing mid-table in the Championship, the knowledge that Saturday is just around the corner can make even the most miserable of weeks fly by. Those pre-match rituals, meeting your friends in the pub, taking the same walk to the ground, going through your lucky turnstile. It’s those experiences that keep us coming back for more.
I’ve learnt first-hand that this is especially true when you are a football fan with a mental health condition.
Even in 2020 it’s difficult to know how much to say when talking about your own mental health. We can claim to live in an accepting society as much as we please but that isn’t always the case. As this is a discussion about the good football can do for those of us who have brains slightly off kilter, I’ll try and keep the gory details to a minimum.
I have obsessive compulsive disorder. In September 2018 my OCD got much worse, and I was forced to return home from starting my first year of university after just one week. The next twelve months looked fairly bleak: moping about at home until I could restart at another university while my friends had the time of their lives up and down the country. Pretty miserable stuff.
Enter Norwich City.
I was late to football, a combined result of being about as athletic as a boulder and having no Norwich supporting family. I’d never had a season ticket, and had only gone to matches on a casual basis over the previous few years. The announcement in October that, as a result of a dismal 2017-18 campaign, half season tickets were available, seemed a stroke of ridiculous good luck.
Yes, I was still mostly spending my time sulking and watching Louis Theroux documentaries, but here was something to look forward to. 26th December 2018 – Norwich vs Nottingham Forest – I marked the date on my Norwich City calendar and begun the anxious countdown.
When Boxing Day finally came I hadn’t missed a home game since the infamous 4-3 against Millwall. This was different though: it was my first game in the seat I’d stay in for years to come. The first time I’d truly feel part of the Carrow Road crowd, like I was meant to be there.
It did not disappoint.
THIS was football. Last minute goals, hugging people you’ve never met, screaming On The Ball City at the top of your lungs. When I was at Carrow Road I felt close to being the person I was before that miserable September. I could forget that something in my head was wrong, because for those two hours I was just one more supporter in a crowd. I would spend my weeks watching videos on Twitter of Daniel Farke doing his waves, knowing I was waving back. Surely, it couldn’t get better.
A few weeks later I met a woman and her dog at my bus stop.
‘Off to the football?’
Those four words – non-football people will never understand how much this sport can bring people together. It is shared highs and lows, the random goals you’ve just remembered, the hours spent on a coach only to watch your team lose 2-0 in what feels like a monsoon. When I met the woman at the bus stop (or Lorraine, as she likes to be called) it quickly became apparent that I’d been approaching football the same way I approached everything while my OCD was at the reigns – I lived inside my own head so it made sense that I should treat football in a similarly insular fashion. I’d been attending alone, spending four hours speaking to no one except the bus driver.
At this point it became apparent that football was having a transformative effect on not only my mindset, but my everyday life. Just six months earlier I could barely leave the house: the idea of going to Carrow Road on a Thursday evening with someone I’d only met a few weeks ago to spend hours with a group of strangers would have been an unimaginable hurdle to face. Yet, in mid-April, Lorraine took me to the end of season social night hosted by the fans’ social club.
When you’re in the midst of a mental health crisis it’s hard to see a way out. What once was a future filled with milestones to look forward to becomes a dark grey cloud – in my case, it was impossible to imagine a time in life where I didn’t feel as if my head were constantly at war with an invisible force. It is difficult to overstate the effect meeting other football fans had on this mindset. Here was a room full of people from different walks of life; journalists, carers, students, children, teachers, all united by one common interest. That evening I met individuals I can say without hesitation showed me that life could be more than waiting for the dark cloud to pass.
Nine days later, Norwich faced Blackburn in the last home game of the season. The Along Come Norwich team had gone all out preparing the Barclay for this one – giant flags representing the nationalities of the players with a Canary-inspired twist, banners along the front of the stand reading ‘thank you for the magic’ in the various mother tongues of the squad. Coupled with the roaring fires provided by the club, the Barclay was resplendent.
I was holding Louis Thompson’s Wales flag.
The rise of the flags occurred along a similar time scale to my mental health recovery: at the beginning of our title winning season they were still in their infancy. They reached B block, my new season ticket home, on only my second match in the Barclay. I immediately took a picture and sent it to my family’s group chat: ‘THERE WAS A FLAG IN MY SEAT. I HAVE A FLAG.’ A Barclay devoid of such colour seems almost a distant memory now, but it took months for the flags to make their way along the entire stand. As my brain started putting itself back together the Barclay became more and more colourful.
The flags mean different things to each of us. They’re symbolic of our recovery on the pitch, a new era of player and fan togetherness, a belief that we can make a real difference to our team. To me, they’re part of what made me want to get out of bed and go to football. I wanted to be part of a Barclay that full of life and colour. Seeing the photos from Blackburn’s game, knowing I’d played a small part in helping make the Barclay look that good – you can’t sum up that feeling in words.
While I could rhapsodise at length about my friends, the Carrow Road crowd, and the ACN team, like Norwich itself I owe a debt to Stuart Webber and Daniel Farke. It is tricky to imagine most of the events that had such an impact on my own life during that season happening in the same manner without them. You can bond with other supporters over the shared misery of a team that seems doomed to fall short of expectations once more, but the bond that arises during a season of unexpected success and constant glory is an unbreakable one.
Daniel Farke will always represent something important to me: along with his players and his staff he provided me with the motivation to get out of my rut and get better. It was his exuberance in interviews, his total faith in the players, his single minded belief that his style of play could work, that showed me I had to be at Carrow Road. His call to arms, telling us to flood the stands and cheer the team over the line. Daniel Farke told us to be there, so I went. Turns out it was a pretty good suggestion – he makes a lot of those.
My brain is somewhat like an angry wasp nest. It’s always on, every waking second, thoughts treating my neural connections like an Autobahn. Think of Carrow Road – thrumming with nerves, with excitement, with pressure. That’s my brain all the time.
Except at the football.
When I’m at the football, I’m stressed. I’m full of adrenaline. My heart feels like it might make a run for it any second.
But that’s how everyone feels.
For two hours, my brain is just like everyone else’s. There’s no time to think about anything other than what’s happening right in front of my eyes. I might be hopping on one leg when we take a set piece or placing my scarf over my face as Tim Krul faces a penalty, but I’m safe in the knowledge that thousands of people around me are doing something equally strange. The football is a place where odd rituals are not only accepted, but encouraged. Where else can you say ‘if I don’t walk through this gate we’ll lose 2-0,’ and face the response ‘well walk through the bloody gate then!’
The impact of that acceptance on a brain as frazzled as mine is monumental. In my normal life, I would see friends from before the breakdown. I’d become used to the look of pity that said ‘I remember when you weren’t like this.’ Of course, the truth is that I’d always been like this. We’re taught from an early age that behaviour outside of the norm is to be hidden away, repressed in the deepest reaches of ourselves where it can’t hurt anyone. At the football, that hidden behaviour is expressed and applauded.
Nearly two years on from that September, I’m better. I know I’ve been incredibly lucky from the moment I dropped out of uni. All those chance moments in the 2018-19 season: the half season tickets, meeting Lorraine, stumbling upon one of the best ever seasons to be a Norwich fan.
That’s what football is about, really. It’s the lucky moments, the smaller moments. They’re everywhere, if you know where you’re looking. I’m glad I spent a year learning to look in the right places.