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The Lockdown Diaries #8

THIS week marks Mental Health Awareness Week. I thought in my column I’d take the opportunity and the platform to talk about something a bit more serious – and that is the relationship between mental health and football.

In recent years there has been a lot more talk in regards to encouraging conversations about mental health.

What was once a taboo subject now seems to rightly be moving away from the stigma that was associated with it.
When I was in school, I remember distinctly the excess of hypermasculinity that was associated with the ‘lad culture’ so essential to being part of the ‘football crowd’.

Being the strongest, the hardest, the loudest guy on the football pitch was something required in the conditions for qualifying as a ‘lad’ and part of being accepted as one of the crowd seemed to mean fitting those requirements.
This included, for example, not crying, not talking about feelings and being respected in the eyes of your mates. As I am still only 18, I cannot speak for mental health in the adult world quite yet, but for young people, football and mental health has a direct correlation.

As I sit in my home during lockdown, I have been reflecting on how football has played such an important part in my life and the absence of it has left a massive void. I thought I’d take a look at mental health’s significance from the perspectives of a football player and that of a football fan.

One thing that is undoubted is the platform available to professional football players nowadays is massive and their responsibility as role models and influencers has increased greatly. Thus, it is important that these players, who are constantly in the limelight, use their platform in a positive manner and set a good example for not only their young admirers but also football fans in general.

I think that a large difficulty in removing the stigma from something is getting past old associations.

For example, the aforementioned ‘lad culture’ has been something I have personally seen embroidered into people’s idea of football as a sport, if not in the wider picture, most definitely in schools and the social crowds of the younger football fans.

Being a football player today brings some truly unnecessary pressures. The pressure to set a good example may mean being active on social media. But, as I’m sure you would’ve seen, football Twitter, Instagram, Facebook etc. can be an extremely toxic environment to be a part of.

QPR have had a couple players this season who have actually had to remove their online presence due to the constant flood of hate and abuse that they have received.

Many years ago if players had a bad game they could put their head down, get to work and try to be better for their next fixture.

The abuse and bad mouthing may still occur in pubs and schools and social events, but there was a certain distance between the toxicity of fan culture and the minds of the football players themselves.

I can only imagine that after having a bad game for their club, the players will feel a range of negative emotion toward themselves and being bombarded with tweets, messages and online hate can be a truly horrific way to intensify those emotions.

The pressure to succeed, to score, to perform in the modern game is higher than it ever has been. Football players not only have their place in the starting XI and image in the dressing room at stake after each match concludes, but now they have to be concerned that if they don’t do well in the game they will come under fire from a minority, but loud minority, of keyboard warriors who now have a platform and an avatar to hide behind.

I empathise massively with the footballers who do receive hate on these sites and feel an inherent disgust towards those ‘fans’ who call themselves supporters and yet feel the need to insult and harass their team online.

An example of a football player who has truly been a positive role model in regards to mental health is our very own skipper Grant Hall.

I remember he did an intimate interview where he spoke about the negative impact his injuries had on his mental health. There are so many factors that these players have to face, and for one of them to not only deal with the mental health issues themselves and then stand up in public and talk about it openly is truly admirable.

Some fans seem to forget that these players are humans too and ignoring this can truly lead to some horrible consequences for those involved. I’m proud to have someone like Grant Hall as the face of our club and the true strength he has extends far past the pitch.

For football fans, mental health is also something that has a pretty strong correlation with the game we all love. From my personal experience, my weeks are usually based around football. Yes I have work, and friends and family and whatnot but genuinely after those things, Saturday afternoons seem to always be one of the main focuses of my week.

So, when lockdown started and the season was suspended I felt a massive void in my life as to what to do with myself. There was a worry that without football in my week, like thousands of other fans, life would be a bit dull.

The excitement that was aroused from the Bundesliga’s continuation this week just proves how big a place football holds in our lives (shoutout to Toni Leistner for representing W12 over in Germany and giving us someone to root for).

But, football extends far past the game itself.

The response to this pandemic in the football world has truly been sensational. QPR, for example, have pulled through some fantastic features and interactions with their fan base throughout this football-less period to keep the QPR family satisfied.

Whether it’s an entire day dedicated to Adel Taarabt, live quiz nights in Andy Sinton’s lounge, or letting an 18 year old, aspiring writer have a weekly column on their website, QPR have proved once again that they are more than just a starting XI.

The endless efforts behind the scenes at QPR during this lockdown period have clearly been exceptional.

It is incredibly true that football is a massive part of our lives. If you’re reading this, it’s because it’s been published by the club you love and you want to see what they have to say, you are a part of this QPR family and if something’s being said by the club, it affects you, it’s about you. Our well being could be greatly affected by having such an intrinsic part of our lives taken away from us, but the club and the fan base have been formidable in such an unprecedented time.

Time and time again the football world has proved to be more than just a sport. People truly do invest so much time, effort and passion into supporting a club and their efforts in the stands and at home are what the game of football is all about.

Every time I meet anyone else who happens to support QPR, there’s an immediate connection. It’s not as simple as liking the same colour or being interested in the same type of things, it’s having a similar lifestyle, a comparable livelihood. I think we can all agree that no one quite understands the pain of football like a QPR fan and if you’re ever lost anywhere in the world, there will most definitely be some QPR family somewhere, willing to help and share that pain with you.

Football provides a platform for community and family, something that is so necessary in the lives of so many football fans. That’s why it feels incredibly different watching football being played behind closed doors.

It’s like trying to live your life without one of your vital organs, there’s always something missing. The heart and soul of the football game is the chants from the fans, the banners and the cheers. The body of football may be the players and the scorelines, but the heart of the game is the fans in the stands making the noise.

People are mentally invested in this game, in this sport, and the relationship between mental health and football is just as strong as that between QPR and conceding in the 90th minute against the run of play.

It’s just as strong as the relationship between Ebere Eze and single handedly destroying Championship defences.

It’s just as strong as Mark Warburton and a white hoodie with a gilet on top. It’s just as strong as Andy Sinton and screaming incomprehensibly after we score a two-yard tap in. I could go on for a while with this gag but I think you get the idea. It’s important. It’s strong. It’s there.

Football is more than a sport, and this week maybe try and have a think about the relationship between yourself and the game you love, acknowledge that the people who are on the pitch feel it just as strongly as you do, the people off the pitch work even harder to engage you, and the people in the stands complete the group that is the QPR family.

Football is more than a game, we are more than a club and during these difficult times, please remember that there are always people who will be there for you. If you feel down, speak up and if you feel alone, reach out. QPR is a family and a community and you are a part of it, embrace it, be kind to it and it will always be kind to you. Your tweets have an affect, your chants have a consequence and as a football fan, you have a responsibility.

Football is in an odd state now, but when it comes back, it will undoubtedly come back strong and whenever it may be, whether a couple months or another year, let’s make sure that when the QPR family are all back together in W12, let’s get The KPFS rocking.

We are QPR.

Stay Safe.