Adrian Chiles: Help! I'm in need ofa miracle cure for my chronic obsession

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The Independent Football

A friend of mine, by then well into his thirties, confessed to his father that he was gay. His father, ignorant but not entirely without compassion, asked him if there was a cure for it. This incident came back to me last Sunday afternoon after I'd watched West Brom lose at home to Middlesbrough. I was in the Match of the Day production office with Gordon Strachan, with whom I'd sat through the game. "Is there a cure for this?" I asked. He looked at me with his usual mixture of bafflement and pity.

A friend of mine, by then well into his thirties, confessed to his father that he was gay. His father, ignorant but not entirely without compassion, asked him if there was a cure for it. This incident came back to me last Sunday afternoon after I'd watched West Brom lose at home to Middlesbrough. I was in the Match of the Day production office with Gordon Strachan, with whom I'd sat through the game. "Is there a cure for this?" I asked. He looked at me with his usual mixture of bafflement and pity.

"A cure for what?"

"This. I'm miserable. We've lost. Our next two games are Arsenal and Man Utd. We'll go into December bottom. It'll blight my whole Christmas. And the rest of the winter. How can I stop caring so much?"

"You can't stop. You're stuck with it. You're a goner," he said.

The problem for me isn't the moment you have your head in your hands following a terrible miss. I can cope with that. It's the fact that four days later the only thing stopping you still having your head in your hands is that your arms are too tired.

Don't get me wrong - I don't want to give my team up, I just want to be a bit more casual about it, less passionate. But is that as fruitless as an ex-smoker trying to cut down to a couple a day, or a reformed alcoholic slipping out for the odd pint?

On Monday, after a long, sleepless night staring at Kanu's miss against Boro endlessly replayed on the inside of my eyelids, I decided to seek help. I know using Google to look up medical complaints is fraught with danger, but needs must.

My spirits soon lifted as I chanced upon a Dr Sandy Wolfson at the School of Psychology and Sports Sciences at Northumbria University. Her list of research topics was indeed promising. I furrowed my brow at "Second-to-fourth digit ration, testosterone and perceived male dominance", and flirted briefly with "Coping strategies in association football referees", but here was the very thing I was after: "Football fans' motives and psychological outcomes of team support".

Imagine my excitement as I called her up - a cure at last! But imagine my disappointment when she cooed sympathetically and said "It's a bad day for me too. I'm a Newcastle fan." This was hopeless - like visiting a psychiatrist only for them to tell you that they're barking mad too.

She might be an American, from Cincinnati, but she's completely in the grip of football: "It got me at St James' Park some time in the mid-Nineties. We were winning and it suddenly dawned on me that there was absolutely nowhere in the world I'd rather be. Nowhere." I noted with interest her use of the first person plural in that sentence for I'd read in one of her papers that "fans are more likely to use the pronoun we when describing a victory and they after a defeat". Yes, football fans, this woman is one of us.

It turns out that football fans have undergone a very well-known psychological process that's as old as the hills: the need to be part of a group. This, says Sandy, is thought to be a natural occurrence: indeed, it would have been difficult for humans to have evolved unless we had this instinct to draw together.

"It's always an advantage to be part of a group rather than to be solo. You could choose patriotism, religion, family identity, your workplace, whatever." It's probably significant that you could take the first three of those - patriotism, religion and family identity - and find that all of them in some way, inform your football allegiance.

"With football," says Sandy, "everything about it reinforces a sense of 'us': the home ground, the seating, the strip, the colours." This all creates a very strong bond. "And when you're there with others as committed as you it's hard to believe others are more committed.

"When we asked fans how they felt about fellow fans, in every case they portrayed fans of their team more positively than fans of other teams. They thought them more knowledgeable, more loyal, more supportive." To which I say: "Well they would, wouldn't they?"

But Sandy sees this as "irrational, some kind of distortion". And, of course, she's right. All fans can't be better than all other fans any more than every driver can be right when he considers himself to be an above-average driver. Irrational. Then again, nobody said football fans are rational. But this illusory superiority, as Sandy calls it, is important as we fans need it to help justify our crazed attitude.

Incidentally, fans rate fans of their own clubs superior in every way apart from one: physical attractiveness. I think this is hilarious. Are you the most loyal fans? Yes. The most vociferous? Yes. The cleverest? Yes. The best looking? No. So we're not totally lacking in self-awareness.

Is support of a football team psychologically healthy or not? "I don't think in-group favouritism and prejudice can be described as healthy," she says, but goes on to imply that it might have a beneficial effect as a kind of pressure valve: "The prejudice you're allowed to proclaim as a football supporter - against other teams - is one of the last pc-free prejudices you're allowed.

"It's unacceptable to do it with race or gender or nationality, but with football you can." She also says football's a valuable tool for social interaction in that a football-supporting environment is one of the very few in which, say, a street cleaner is on the same intellectual level as a barrister, "because on the subject of tactics a street cleaner's opinion is as valid as a lawyer's". All fascinating stuff, but I'm no nearer a cure.

I know she's not a medical doctor but couldn't she just write me a prescription anyway? "I don't know what therapeutic steps you could take. I wouldn't recommend hypnosis."

"Hypnosis had never occurred to me, but now you mention it."

"You really wouldn't want to lose it though, would you? Because all the tossing and turning at night, everything you go through, is worth it because the highs are so great."

If you say so, doctor, if you say so.

Can you help? Have you brought your football illness under control?

adrian.chiles@btopenworld.com

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