It's a week out from the opening English Premier League weekend, and Neil Humphreys explains why it's an addiction we just can't kick...
After the 35-hour flight home from Brazil, I was done with football for the time-being. Our relationship wasn’t irretrievably broken or anything quite so melodramatic, but there was a jarring, numbing sense of sameness that was tiptoeing towards indifference. A conscious uncoupling was welcome. After dozens of matches in quick succession, it was hard not to feel like the exhausted gynecologist who goes home to his beautiful wife in the old joke. He loves her dearly, but if he has to see one more…
So there was a temporary parting of the ways. We had our own lives to lead. There were other people involved; families and friends had been neglected from late May until the end of July. Conversations were no longer sprinkled with mentions of Neymar’s broken back or England’s lack of backbone.
There were tokenistic nods towards the vague concept of “quality time” with cinema trips and family picnics.
But it’s always the same; a post-season façade of forced fun. We pretend we don’t care about football for a bit and create a false reality. Like an extra in The Truman Show, we act out normal social conventions knowing the whole time that our circumstances are artificial and unsustainable. It’s a perfect world of date nights, family bonding, friendly catch-ups and no bloody football. It’s cold turkey without the methadone. The face continues to smile while a mental stopwatch counts down to the first round of fixtures.
As the new Premier League season creeps closer, our heads are gradually turned by the latest headlines. An unexpected transfer; a pre-season friendly result between Manchester United and Liverpool; a simian supporter swinging from the crossbar in the Salford City-Class of 92 fund-raiser; a daily comment from Mr Soundbite Man Arsene Wenger; they all conspire to tease and flirt, like an old girlfriend strutting past the office window with new heels and a sharp haircut.
Some break before others, but there is always a tipping point. It could be anything; Liverpool’s annexation of Southampton, Manchester United’s insistence on playing 3-5-2 with no discernible back three or Jose Mourinho’s unexpected capture of Cesc Fabregas, which seemed to bear all the hallmarks of Hannibal Lecter inviting a friend to dinner only to tear his insides out, strip away his soul and leave him an empty husk of a man. Everyone has a weak spot, a trigger point that blows away any notion of an enforced exile with all the subtlety of a blunderbuss.
Andy Carroll ended my football abstinence. Another infuriatingly niggling injury, this one ruling the occasional West Ham striker out until November, sparked an unfortunate Al Pacino impression, causing some serious kitchen table pounding and lots of shouting: “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in”.
For all its quirks and foibles, the English Premier League can never be the one that got away. The connection is too deep, too profound and, dare I say it, spiritual. The long-term relationship has already outlasted mates and girlfriends (one of whom, curiously, shared an uncanny resemblance to Ian Bishop and yet I still preferred to spend time with the old West Ham midfielder on a Saturday afternoon.)
An addiction... A compulsion
When an addiction begins in the cradle in a matching baby vest and bib in club colours and ends with the club theme song being played at the funeral, abstinence isn’t possible because it isn’t really an addiction. It’s an instinctive way of life, like breathing (or gagging, depending on the teams involved.) Hold the breath for a minute, maybe even two, and still the natural, uncontrollable urge to eventually exhale “for God’s sake, don’t buy Peter Crouch to replace Andy Carroll” will always win out in the end.
The Premier League is not really an addiction, but a compulsion. Beyond the rarefied heights of the top four – and even three of those are going to experience a degree of disappointment each season – every other club’s followers are fully aware that the highs typically associated with addiction are going to be painfully hard to come by. Addiction can at least promise the odd daytrip to nirvana, but most fans are under no illusion when it comes to expectations for the upcoming season. And still, they come back. They behave compulsively. They suffer intrusive, incoherent and irrational thoughts such as … Alexis Sanchez can win Arsenal the title … Burnley will beat the drop … Drogba can defy his age… Liverpool should survive Suarez’s departure … Joe Cole might enjoy a renaissance at Aston Villa…
These are not the musings of a muddled addict, but the obsessive-compulsive ramblings of otherwise rational individuals. Nonsense to outsiders, they make perfect sense to those on the inside; those who get it; those who belong whether they like it or not (and you will swing violently between the two this season, just like every other.)
As another campaign kicks off, the Premier League has reeled us in despite hyperventilating on its own hype and promising riches we know it can’t possibly deliver. And yet we return; our childlike hopes and giddy expectations undiminished. We return for the same reasons we return to a classic movie. We know almost every character and pretty much know the ending already (on screen, the good guys win. On the pitch, it’s usually Manchester City.)
But we keep coming back because there is always that moment when we spot something for the first time, something we missed on previous viewings, something rare and magical. And in that moment we remember, all over again, why we fell in love with the old classic in the first place.
Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. You can find his website right here.