Robin Sainty: How football is more than just a game for some

PUBLISHED: 06:00 28 March 2020

Football at Carrow Road is a much-needed part of life for Norwich fans, for many reasons 
Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Football at Carrow Road is a much-needed part of life for Norwich fans, for many reasons Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Paul Chesterton

As the enforced isolation resulting from the coronavirus pandemic continues to tighten its grip upon us all, it’s important to appreciate just how badly the absence of football and its associated social networks can affect the mental wellbeing of those around us.

Tim Krul - a shining example of Norwich City togetherness 
Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images LtdTim Krul - a shining example of Norwich City togetherness Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Let me preface this by saying that I’m one of the lucky ones who has never suffered from true depression or anxiety, but over the course of my life I’ve met and got to know lots of people who have, and there is no doubt that for them in particular, football can be a very important coping device.

However, even for those who don’t have those sorts of issues, it can be hugely important. As one fan explains: “Football certainly gives me the opportunity to ‘let off steam’ in a safe environment with good friends.

“The group I have been going to games with for the last 20 years quite often say that it’s more about the social interaction rather than the football, although sometimes that’s fun as well.

“We talk about work, children, partners, friends and it is often the catalyst for the rest of my social life.”

City fans together as one  
Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images LtdCity fans together as one Picture: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

For those suffering from excess anxiety or depression, however, the loss of football can be much more traumatic, and I am very grateful to a number who have been prepared to talk candidly to me about the impact on themselves.

C is a City fan who suffers from anxiety and this is his description of how the looming football shutdown affected his own mental wellbeing: “I felt a real sense of dread going into the Southampton game - because I really wanted the game to remain on, not because I felt scared of coronavirus. I think a part of me was in denial and a part of me was afraid of losing what’s been a fantastic escape for me year after year.”

However, he has been able to use that negative to create a positive: “Rather than thinking of what we’ve been missing out on, I’ve just been trying to think of how great it’s going to be when we get it back.”

I think we can all agree with that sentiment.

Former Norwich City player Leon McKenzie, talks about his life with depression during a Norfolk Mind Picture:: ArchantFormer Norwich City player Leon McKenzie, talks about his life with depression during a Norfolk Mind Picture:: Archant

A’s story is completely different. The last year had seen him getting his life moving in the right direction, but that all changed at a stroke when he was made redundant without any warning as a result of the impact of the coronavirus on his employer’s business. As he puts it, “I felt like I’d had the rug completely swept from under my feet”.

The pandemic may have been the primary cause of his problems, but the absence of sport represented the removal of a vital prop: “Through it all I’ve had to find new ways to cope with things as my normal release, sport, isn’t available to me. No match days at Carrow Road, no basketball to keep me entertained on Sky Sports, just me and my thoughts.”

One person who was more than happy to be identified in this piece is Kris Gunns. Kris is a former member of the Canaries Trust board and someone for whom I have the utmost admiration for the way in which he has blogged with great honesty about his mental health issues in order to help others. This shutdown has hit him hard, as he explains: “Football has given me a connection to the outside world, be it through connecting via social media, or actively attending matches. It’s an escape from my borderline personality disorder.

“With coronavirus, not only has it taken away football, that distraction, but it initially felt like it had removed that connection to the outside world.”

The Canaries TrustThe Canaries Trust

Despite this he sees a light at the end of the tunnel because of the bond that he has developed with his fellow fans, something to which he can cling in the darkest of times and a way in which he can also give something back: “Football has helped me create a fantastic support network, and it’s one that has always stuck by me, through thick and thin. Even though football is on hiatus, those fellow Yellows have stuck by me, asking if I’m okay throughout these difficult times, helping me if I’m struggling. Football is an escape for me, football fans stop me from escaping into a panic room. Keep talking, I may have my dark times, but I’ll always help others from feeling that way too.”

That spirit of Norwich City togetherness has been illustrated again this week with players and senior staff phoning elderly season ticket holders to check on their welfare and offer support.

Sadly, it’s inevitable that a lengthy lock-down will affect everyone as we find our movements restricted in a way that none of us has ever experienced. Relationships will be strained and magistrates I’ve spoken to fear an increase in domestic violence as nerves become stretched, so be able to access wider communication will be increasingly vital.

This is going to be a tough time for all of us, but no one should have to suffer alone. If people don’t have family or friends to turn to when things get too much then contact the Trust via our website (www.canariestrust.org), Twitter (@canariestrust) or Facebook page and we do everything that we can to help.

The social network that football creates may have been disrupted by the current crisis, but it is strong, and it can and will help to get everyone through the next few difficult weeks.

Just like the players on the pitch we as fans can pull together to ensure that no one is left behind. Please keep talking.

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