The Super League threatened mental health, whether you realise it or not

Whether you follow one of the so-called ‘Big Six’ or not (a phrase that seems even more empty and entitled than ever, in light of recent events), you would hope that the severity of the situation wasn’t lost on any true lover of football.

Over the past month or so, virtually every United fan and supporter from any of the 12 clubs that foolishly enrolled themselves in the selfishly-conceived Super League, feared that the game they adore could end as we know it.

They showed utter contempt for all of us and we will never forget how ready they were to do it all right under our noses. They couldn’t muster up the common decency to give us a response or a proper apology at first and even when they did, it was vapid and barefaced – all we could see was this utter indifference and arrogance:

Yes, there were plenty of calls for the complicit clubs to be sent packing and chants of ‘good riddance!’ from the rest of the Premier League and, indeed, throughout British football – Europe, even – but the fact is, the consequences of this cursed competition threatened the entire footballing pyramid and much, much more.

As we near the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, I have spent the last few days reflecting on how big a watershed moment the proposed Super League was and what life would’ve been like had it succeeded. The implications were massive and the potential impact immeasurable.

It’s bigger than football

The first thought I had when the rumblings of the announcement first arrived (other than mass expletives) was of how many people have had little else to look forward to other than watching the game they love in the past 12 months.

No seeing your friends or family, no trips to the pub; no going to the gym, the cinema or even the barbers; for so many, we just had football. And even then, for a few months there, we didn’t even have that and still we wait, desperately, to get back inside stadiums. 

For the working class, specifically, generations have grown up grafting from Monday to Friday, kept sane throughout the monotony of 9-5 solely in the knowledge that they’d be able to go and watch their team at the weekend. Often, it’s the only thing that keeps proper, hard-working people going.

Moreover, if you’re lucky enough to support a club like United that regularly competes in multiple competitions – whether it’s the domestic cups, the Champions League or the all too much-maligned Europa League – those midweek reprieves can be the perfect pick-me-up or, often, the only thing that helps you get through full-stop.

That was the story for 46-year-old, James Lindemann, a life-long Red who recently spoke about his experience with mental health in the MEN. After his father tragically took his own life, James said that it was watching Man United that saved him:

“Unfortunately, I never got to know my father well, however, I have fond memories of attending United matches […] After he died, United became my stress reliever and from my late teens until my early 30s, I would go to away games all around the world, and it really was a tool to take my mind off real life.”

He went on to say that as well as taking strength from two uncles and a group of supportive friends, it was Manchester United’s ‘family’ of fans that helped him pull through these difficult times.

This is what I am talking about: there is nothing quite like the feeling of being in that ground and forming genuine, organic relationships over something you care about and, in time, you come to care for each other, whether you realise it or not.

James is now raising money for the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a mental health movement that looks to combat suicide. 125 make that choice every week in the UK, 75% of them being men – who knows how even more unthinkable those numbers would be if we lost something so important male culture as football.

This is precisely why initiatives like #StopOnlineAbuse are so important: you never know what some people are going through whether it’s inside of football or otherwise, you need to be part of the solution, not the problem. You can also donate to James’ fundraiser here.

(Image: Anthony Devlin/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Context and community

It is because of stories likes this and having now been faced with (make no bones about it) the end of competitive football – at least for the twelve clubs involved – that I will never look down my nose at the Europa League again, and neither should you. United are now into the final and Ole could win his first trophy, which will hopefully be a platform to build on.

While it may not be the competition a club of United’s heritage should be bound for, it’s the one we are in and I will take the prospect of a well-fought trophy, all the same, over a farcical closed-shop competition that serves to benefit no one else than it’s architects and other singularly-motivated money men. No matter the calibre of game, it matters to someone and that should matter to you.

Sure, there are always days when it doesn’t feel worth it: they usually coincide with when your team loses and you construct some strange paradigm where your labour, strife and sacrifice should somehow directly correlate to a positive result. But on those days when you win, it feels like everything else fades away. 

Even seeing players doing the hard yards and leaving everything out on the pitch is sometimes enough to lift your spirits and feel like you’re all in it together and pulling towards something great. It may sound cliché but it’s the intangible yet spiritual connection between the players and the fans that makes football so special and so crucial to mental health.

Don’t forget, these clubs are named after the towns and cities they sprang from not just in terms of geography, but because when they were conceived, they were supposed to represent the communities they were born out of.

Moreover, that’s why the Super League was so dangerous, because for smaller local areas, especially, football is still very much at the heart of everything. The ESL threatened them all – however indirectly you may want to think, the fact is it did.

The precariously positioned pyramid

The footballing pyramid isn’t perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but the way it is set up ensures that a significant amount of the money generated by the Premier League every season, trickles down the leagues and all the way down to grassroots pitches.

As if you ever needed it reiterating, had the Super League gone ahead, those life-changing sums would not have found their way down to the clubs that need it most. The FA, UEFA and FIFA all threatened to kick them out of their respective domestic leagues and the ECA altogether – they even left of their own volition and nine had to rejoin when the whole thing crumbled.

Not only would clubs at all levels suddenly face huge financial struggle but entire British institutions may have seized to exist. Sheffield FC, Notts County, Stoke City, Crystal Palace: they’re some of the oldest teams in world football, let alone English; none of them have the financial firepower of the Big Six and without solidarity payments, clubs wouldn’t have survived.

You may think that Premier League clubs like Palace would be in better shape than those further down the divisions, and you’d be right – the gulf between the Prem and the EFL is ridiculously large – but it only takes one bad season to get relegated and suddenly parachute payments are a club’s only lifeline to maintain what has been run, financially, as a top-flight club.

The contrast between the top flight and the rest of English football is staggering at times. While the Prem were more interested in squeezing in extra sponsors on shirt sleeves for everything from betting sponsors to luxury foreign bathroom fittings, the EFL has printed names and numbers in partnership with the mental health charity, Mind, since 2018.

This by no means to say that capitalism and monetary maneuvering doesn’t run deep throughout all of football – the advent of sleeve sponsors looks to be one that will only worsen over time. Nevertheless, it’s a reminder of priorities and how disproportionately the money is already distributed once you get to the Championship, so imagine the disparity had the breakaway happened.

Furthermore, as less money trickled down the already precariously positioned pyramid, think of all the fans whose local clubs could vanish. Think of all the players at lower league and non-league clubs that would suddenly have their means of living threatened; all the young lads dreaming of becoming a footballer and having academy systems snatched from under them.

Sports of all kinds are a necessary outlet to vent frustration, escape from the stresses of everyday life and maintain health, both physical and mental, even if only for 90 minutes. Comprimising that, whether it be in terms of participating in or supporting a team, would be to close off a crucial pressure valve that keeps people from imploding.

Mind campaign in unison with the EFL to support people struggling with mental health issues.

Knitted into the fabric

For the very small minority who tried to argue ‘football will still be played, so what’s the big deal?’, I’m afraid you’ve drastically missed the point. Competition is at the very heart of sport itself: earning success and the idea that you could lose it all just as easily as you could win the lot is what makes it matter.

Moreover, this is why today’s season tickets are a disgrace. Pricing out has been happening for years and is it wasn’t unaffordable and untenable enough, the Super League threatened even fewer people being able to go to the game. It was worth noting that the ‘ESL’ moniker was soon dropped: this is because they had no intention of stopping at Europe.

It soon became clear that the European clubs – deriving from established football-loving countries – were just the first step. It’s no secret that several of the Big Six are either owned or affiliated with Americans; a total of seven of the 20 teams currently in the Premier League are operated by US owners.

The franchise model that is common in their country could’ve seen true home stadiums abandoned altogether, with the teams touring around the world, moving further and further away from the home town they were supposed to represent. Leaving its foundations, literally and figuratively, behind.

You can’t unweave what is part of the social fabric that knits together communities all over the globe and sew it back somewhere else it doesn’t fit. Most fans couldn’t possibly be able to afford travelling all over the world to watch their team play every month, every week, nor be able to pay for all the subscriptions needed to watch a game now wrapped up in even more broadcast deals. And they never expected you to.

We all had to digest the nauseating notion of ‘legacy fans‘ and the reality that these businessmen didn’t care for you but only for for the ‘fans of the future’. Your history with the club meant nothing, they just wanted new, well-lined pockets to pick from and were happy to sever ties because someone will always be willing to take your seat or watch it on the telly.

Shame turned to pride

At its peak, Man United’s involvement in the Super League conjured immense feelings of shame and betrayal in me, as I’m sure it did for all of us. Our club had undermined the very people who put them on a pedastal and helped it become the juggernaut it is today.

I felt a deep, visceral reaction to the news but I wasn’t just wrapped up in my own emotions, me and my friends were now having to deal with each others anxietes too. Suddenly, we were wrestling over whether we should burn shirts, give up season tickets or stop watch football completely, and had to face the idea of a life without the football.

It was truly three of the worst days of my life. But that shouldn’t be the case. There are bigger things going on in the world than football – mental health being one of them – and life goes on. Yet, of course, it doesn’t feel like that when you’re in it, because you care so intensely and it’s so intertwined with your personality that you realise they are one and the same.

So much so, in fact, that when the protests began – not just outside Old Trafford but around the nation – I was overwhelmed by the strength and solidarity of football fans, as I’m sure you were too.

I’m not one for sappy statements or the general mawkish sincerity that Britain, as a whole, tends to struggle with but I have to say, the sense of pride I felt not only to be Red but a football fan, in general, was the strongest it had been for some time.

Even before the #GlazersOut protests on the 24th April, on the 2nd of May and again on the 13th, hearing that players like Bruno, Shaw, Rashford and our captain, Harry Maguire, had come out against the proposal and even challenge the board directly was heart-warming and invigorating.

After having been seemingly sapped of all my energy, I suddenly felt reinvigorated and more riled up than ever. Better still, fans from all over put aside rivalry and tribalism for the greater good and the unity displayed when our beautiful game was on the line was a sight to behold.

Football is nothing without fans and we’re nothing without football

We may never forget what they’ve done but we’ll always remember what we achieved and the bigger picture we protected, knowingly or not, by overthrowing this absolute afront to football. The war may not be done but we won the battle and we’ll keep fighting for something greater.

As Sir Matt Busby famously said, “football is nothing without fans”. That banner currently covers the seats of the Stretford End and although the irony is crippling, given how the club’s owners have betrayed that simple yet superlative sentiment in the past few of weeks, we’ve seen just how true it is, now more than ever, over the last 12 months.

Football matches just haven’t been the same without fans in the stadiums—fact. The players have missed us just as much as we’ve missed them. Crowd noise and the attempt to create an atmosphere on TV cannot compare to the real thing and, most crucially, the importance of bonding with your mates over the football – whether it’s in the stands, at the pub or in someone’s front room – is an irreplaceable form of human connection for so many.

Though I may have somewhat meandered my way to the purpose of this piece, adjacent digressions aside, the point I was trying to get to is that football is more than just a game. Perhaps it shouldn’t be and we as fans have an unhealthy level of attachment to it, but that’s just the way it is.

More importantly, however, I want to tell you that that is totally ok. People latch onto all manner of things for comfort and stability, so why not football? It’s an activity that you can play or simply watch alongside like-minded people, make friends and look after each other, often without ever having to say a word. You just celebrate together when the goal goes in.

Lastly, I hope this reminds you how important you are as a fan; you should relish having played a role in something so significant and, hopefully, continuing to do so. We got our ball back, now have each other’s back.

  • If you are struggling with any mental health issue, don’t wait to seek out help. If you need someone to talk to, you can get in touch with Samaritans for free on 116 123.
  • Equally, if you’d prefer not speak directly over the phone, you can also text ‘SHOUT‘ to 85258 to get more free 24/7 support.
  • Also be sure to visit the NHS website for useful online resources, including the Hub of Hope: a mental health support network where you can locate local charities and services near you by simply entering your postcode.
  • And of course, if you are notable to contact your local mental health service and you need advice, you can dial 111 as well as use the online service.
  • Lastly, if you believe either your life or someone else’s is at urgent risk, call 999 immediately and locate your nearest A&E.
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