We've Lost Our Ability To Handle Setbacks and It's Driving Us Insane
A free read on how, as football fans, we've all lost the plot
To me, the ability to “take one’s licks”, or one's lumps, was a sign of phlegmatic strength.
(Licks and lumps sound like this could be a very different kind of article, especially if bending over to take them; but I'd suggest any imagery in your head is down to you.)
It was unpleasant, but you recovered.
Now, in the social media age, no one wants to take their licks.
Losing as a fan used to feel more private. To many, losing now feels like a public humiliation, and public humiliations cut right to our very core; which is why the village stocks and pillories, and other public square shamings, were deemed too inhumane in the dim, distant past (even at a time when people were still sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, such as 1839).
If you’ve ever been dragged on Twitter you know how mindfucking it is, but you don’t need to be a big account who misspoke – just someone who puts stuff out into the world, given that stuff will, sooner or later, come back.
It used to be the guy in work – the jerk – who'd mock your team losing. Maybe some mates, who'd give you a bit of a ribbing. It was mostly good-natured, and for days you'd probably never encounter a fan of another club. You’d escape football “banter” for a while, even if ideas about the games filled your head.
Now – to those who live on social media – it feels like thousands of strangers pile on, with everyone suffering a total humiliation and obliteration of their ego, as faceless hordes – the most horrible people imaginable, naturally – come at you. (We always imagine the worst of any group of opponents, seeing their most crazy constituents as representative.)
The online world is full of obnoxious O’Bannions, seeking to give you a mental paddling. That’s how it feels. They’ll chase you, and you don’t always have your mate’s mum with a sawn-off shotgun to win the fight for you.
Some are just joining a pile-on. But quite a few of them clearly have some kind of mental illness, given their behaviours. The number of really active – very online – people on social media who clearly have issues with impulse control, anger, depression (guilty as charged), and more extreme personality disorders (after all, if you want attention on there 24/7, you’re in a bad place mentally already), is scary. It took me a while to realise the danger it does to my own mental health.
This is obviously not just football discourse, but also how healthy people get driven to being a never-masker or a triple-masker. Just being a normal person who reacts normally and proportionally (using one mask, where appropriate) gets lost on Twitter, but Twitter sets the tone for a lot of public decision-making. It gets people fired, global policies put in place, and it seeps out into the real world at an alarming rate. Twitter really is a mob, large and unthinking. To be constantly plugged in is to hand over your own sanity. Twitter controls a lot of football discourse, too. It seeps out, like toxic sludge from a chemical plant.
Add in a sense of entitlement, a sense of “I want it now!” and we have a toxic culture that makes sport hard to enjoy. We all get emotional (especially during a game, and maybe for a short while afterwards), but it’s the ability to see that, and quickly calm down, that will keep football enjoyable. Yes, we lose the plot, but we also need to quickly regain the plot.
Without that, it’s just a horrific noise. It’s just misery.
To stay in a state of impotent rage, rehashing the emotions on Twitter (and other platforms), just prolongs the agony. The humiliation builds. The lashing out begins.
As such, never go seeking out people to mock when they (or their team) are struggling, as it’ll come back to haunt you – not via karma, but just by the laws of the internet, and that shit happens, and that it’ll be your time, or your team’s time, soon.
Being mid-table never used to be a cause for the world to end; certainly if you knew you had a great team and a great manager. And Liverpool do. Teams would have dips, especially after outsized exertions.
I was told that #FSGout was trending the other day, during the Rangers game. It was trending when I logged on for 30 seconds yesterday to post a link to a piece. But then it trended throughout last season, when Liverpool came close to the best quadruple in football history. It’s always trending. These people are religious fanatics, in some kind of cult, that we see build up around a lot of political ideas too. The humiliation of being wrong – and people are not kind to those who are wrong – just ramps everything up to 11.
(Admitting you’re wrong, rather than appeasing the mob, just gives it more energy to come at you, so why apologise?)
FSG will make mistakes. Jürgen Klopp will make mistakes. The players will make mistakes. The medical staff will make mistakes.
But the club and its players will “play fair”, by not financially doping their way to success that would surely feel hollow anyway. If you don’t fight to earn it, what is it anyway? Is it sport, or is a need for personal affirmation, to have your petty online battles vindicated by results, or you know the “enemy” will come and pile on? Go watch F1 and who spends the most on the fastest cars. (Oh wait, that’s now pretty much the same as football.)
The thing is, you can’t win on social media.
You just can’t win on social media.
Especially with an argument. Because it never ends. There’s no time-bell, when everyone goes to their corners, and someone’s hand is held aloft. It just gets worse, and worse, and worse. You win round one, then in rounds two and three and four, you get four kinds of shit smacked out of you. Then you have to wait like an obsessive for the next round, to get your jabs in.
It’s why I’d advise all players to avoid it at all costs, and to say ‘piss off’ to building a brand, as mental health and being good at your sport is much more important than anything else some shiny branded merch could get you when you’re already earning millions per year. It’s a positivity-drain, a mental swamp.
If you gloat (as a player or as a fan), it’ll come back harder when the shoe is on the other foot. And it will feel worse, as we've evolved with a negativity bias, which makes criticism sting much harder than praise boosts.
We will always feel outnumbered, by both the fact that other people always outnumber us (especially in moments where we feel alone) and their comments will weigh heavier and seem to pile higher. All this leads to a situation where everyone feels in a constant state of catastrophe if their team hasn’t won every game.
The ‘shade’ people put out is never really felt by the shader, as it just eases off their keyboard; but the response feels personal. And so, duly humiliated, that person resolves to go harder next time; and then the backlash comes back, harder still. This is basically how every gangland beef has worked in history. A sense of permanent avenging is driving people nuts.
Even every success for FSG – for the club it bought, reshaped and steered (they made the successful appointments and balanced the budget), winning every trophy possible in the past three-and-a-half years (three-and-a-half years!) – is soon greeted as a failure for those Liverpool fans invested in #FSGOut. And every failure is proof of the wisdom of #FSGOut. Then, compare them against oil states, conmen, killers – and they don’t care. They want #FSGOut. (Probably more at this stage than they want on-field success.)
You’d think these incredible successes were in the dim, distant past; remnants of some long-forgotten age:
Premier League: 2019/20 (runners-up several times)
FA Cup: 2021/22
EFL Cup/Football League Cup: 2021/22
FA Community Shield: 2022
UEFA Champions League: 2018/19 (runner-up: 2017/18, 2021/22)
UEFA Super Cup: 2019
FIFA Club World Cup: 2019
Plus, ranked the 4th-best team in history in the Elo Index in 2020, and ranked no.1 for 2022 from about April-June of this year.
I've spoken many times of the hedonic treadmill, and how new levels of success just start to feel like the baseline. But Liverpool flew so high for so long that there were almost no new levels to reach. (And even Manchester City can still keep chasing the 'big one', that they've yet to win. They’ve not done what Liverpool have, despite almost limitless spending. They can’t buy a European Cup.)
A crash after the flying too close to the sun last season makes sense; wings have melted. It wasn’t hubris, as Liverpool came within two goals of winning the best quadruple ever. This was no Icarus, being daft. But even so, some damage has been done.
We loved that ride – we wanted what felt like 100 games, one every 23 hours, win after win after win – until the farce of the Champions League final, with Liverpool cast as the villains and the whole vibe shifted down to downbeat. Without that vibe shift, the Reds could have won that game; and even then, it took one of the best goalkeeping performances in history won it for Real Madrid.
The summer, with preseason training cut short and a lack of time to recuperate for fatigued players, didn’t go as planned. Some players looked played into exhaustion when you add that they’ve gone to big tournaments already (Mo Salah) and start every game for their countries (Salah, Virgil van Dijk), or played more games than anyone else in the world (Díaz).
The team looks too old, but obviously not necessarily by design, bar one or two decisions here and there.
However, there was a €100m deal agreed to bring in a powerful young midfielder, and talks over a €100m attacking teenage midfielder, whose proposed fee has since risen by 50%.
Neither materialised, but the money was there.
Liverpool lost out to Real Madrid, and Dortmund refused to sell a second star of the summer.
There were then differences of opinion on who to move onto after missing out on two absolutely elite players, and that will sharpen minds for the January window. Liverpool know they got it wrong to not tie someone else down; and poor Arthur Melo arrived as an unfit last-gasp compromise, in need of extra training, then tore a muscle from trying too hard.
Some great kids arrived, but one had growing pains and has yet to play. Covid obviously hit Liverpool harder than some other clubs too, as other clubs continue to find money from the backs of gigantic sofas in the Gulf states, or make up their sponsorship deals by adding a nought or two.
Darwin Núñez, however, was hardly cheap, and has really showed how dangerous he can be in the last two games (aided by the sensational Luis Díaz, whose potentially serious injury against Arsenal shifted the game in the hosts favour, as the Reds were outplaying them).
I've been critical of the team this season, and I've not agreed with all of Klopp's decisions.
I never want silly summer spending for the sake of it, but I didn't expect so many older players to be used in 2022/23. I can understand most of the decisions, just not all of them.
(It’s my job to say that I don’t understand these things, but I also don’t have all the data, or the knowledge. I’m a writer, with decent football knowledge built over decades; but not a manager, with world-class smarts and experience. Some flashy numpty who runs some struggling lower league club said that Klopp was “arrogant” for not starting Darwin Núñez and Luis Díaz against Brighton, as if taking Brighton lightly – which seems bonkers – when Klopp had been told by the medical staff that the international players fresh from two games in South America were not suitable for starting, due to risk of injuries; especially with 13 games in about six weeks and enough injuries mounting up already. As it is, Díaz plays a ton of football, and now his knee is injured; and even impact injuries and jarring joints are made higher risk by fatigue.)
I’ve been listing my gripes, as that’s my job, but they’re gripes within the framework of total trust in Klopp, FSG and everyone else.
Not blind trust; earned trust. Klopp turns things around, almost always.
But if he doesn’t this season, there’s next season.
Football doesn’t end. Trust is earned and leeway is granted. Trust wears down over time, but can be reinforced, too. Any season that goes off the rails can also become a chance to refresh, revive and revise.
(And if the Reds 100% have to finish in the top four to do things like get Jude Bellingham, I fear it’ll be a long and crazy-making season. That’s just so unhealthy. That way lies madness.)
And another thing: football doesn’t work in 7-8 year cycles.
It just doesn’t.
Menstrual cycles and the moon’s waxing and waning can be timed fairly accurately. A natural cycle in football, if there is one, is roughly three years. It’s what most managers in history have talked about, especially if working with the same group of players.
(That this squad has perhaps grown a shade too old is different to the issues at Dortmund, for example. There, no one got too old as Bayern Munich just bought them all.)
Beyond that, there are no patterns.
“the tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things.”
“the tendency for perception to impose a meaningful interpretation on a nebulous stimulus, usually visual, so that one sees an object, pattern, or meaning where there is none.”
Seven years means nothing, as each situation in Klopp’s previous two jobs was so markedly different, including the players, the club, the assistant managers, the owners, the budgets, the ups, the downs, and so on. The injuries this season have been clear; the lack of energy apparent, as it was in 2020/21, after the efforts from 2018-2020.
Yet Klopp’s worst period so far at Liverpool was in his 5th season, not this, his 7th.
Six home league defeats in a row. A run of 14 league games at 0.86 ppg, or relegation form. This season, with tough away games front-loaded into the schedule, is far better than that, if far from great.
He turned that around, just as he turned around the 14-point gap last season (which I didn't see as possible), just as he turned around his horrible final season at Dortmund that, after the midseason break, saw Dortmund's awful luck literally change, and they were the 3rd-best in Germany in the final months.
One of the reasons – aside from trying to find ways to continue to thrive without pandering to advertisers, clickbait, hysteria and bullshit – I set up the sister TTT ZenDen Substack (such as this article about Núñez after the Rangers game, and how the goals would come) was to shut out this noise and just find something positive in the experience of being a Liverpool fan. Just me quietly putting a few positives into the world, without suggesting that the world is perfect. It’s for a banter-free, healthy mind space.
We also set up This Red Planet, based on my most recent book, to look at the global fanbase, different experiences, the sense of community, and some deeper mental health issues surrounding football.
We set up Dynasty, for reminders of history, and for a sense of community amongst older fans, and for younger fans to learn from the village elders.
We're still in the process of finalising the major admin on this here, the TTT Main Hub, but content will start appearing on the other TTT Substacks. (Some has appeared so far but it’ll be easier once we’ve got more off-site things sorted.) We’re building these as we go, in a big undertaking, to try and buck the trends of impatience and insanity.
We're also launching the TTT Transfer Hub, as I fear that – even though it won't be pandering to bullshit – most fans want to live in the future of idealised incoming transfers. To not live in the here and now, but some borrowed future glory. As such, we’ll analyse targets, dive into some data, but not make shit up.
Indeed, what fans want is much like many clubs seem to do these days anyway: buy with what they haven’t earned; get risky venture capital gambles, or sell off 25 years' of earnings for the “need it now”, for a kind of success bought on a credit card, like a broke man hiring a BMW on some dodgy deal. Money begets money, so the more you can borrow or inject artificially, you’ll get rewards; but it’s not sport, is it?
Others just pump in money from ways that the authorities can’t keep track of, and, whether legally or not, pay strikers £900,000 a week (and £40m in agent/family payments), when it obliterates a pay structure and yet it’s still passed off as cheap.
I want Liverpool to do well, but not with the money of murderous regimes, or by selling off shares of 25 years’ of future earnings, or from gambling the existence of the club on venture capital investment that will need paying back, when all the clubs doing so will include several who will fail badly (as there’s not room for everyone in the top four), and possibly fold.
Anyone can do that – build on lies and mirages and false promises, like a Theranos of football. Why not just go to the trophy shop and buy your own gold statue? Again, we need to find the sport in football.
As for this season, it will be tough, but the World Cup, as I keep saying, remains the natural regrouping post. Liverpool came strong in the 2021 run-in. They came strong in the 2022 run-in. Dortmund came strong in the 2014/15 run-in. The Reds won’t have more than half the squad going to Qatar, and likely less than that. Other clubs won’t want the six-week break, but Liverpool surely will.
A chance to rest for a couple of weeks in late November, after the manic 2022, will help. Serious injuries will have time to heal. Then four weeks’ training. Then, a new player or two in the January window, after the failures of the summer.
Then, we go again. And we look to try and enjoy it, otherwise, why bother?
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