Supporters’ Groups… A Missed Opportunity?

An American Football Fan's Perspective

 There’s a feeling connected to standing shoulder to shoulder with a group of like-minded people. All hoping for a reason to cheer, yell or scream as a collective. On June 1, 2019, people of Central Ohio gathered to watch their favorite team in England. It’s a ritual that was in place for five years prior to that day and will continue long after this story has left collective online memory.  

If one was lucky enough to get inside, they found their spot within a taped off section, allowing bartenders to serve the patrons in red. An environment of first come first served where total strangers stood and sat next to each other. Liverpool versus Tottenham in the Champions League final, a match where the game-winning goal happened in the second minute, but no one knew it at the time. Each tackle, errant pass or shot on goal causing the rise and rapid breaking of tension. A tension felt by everyone in attendance. 

For some people in the United States this is as close as they’ll come to standing in the Kop or their far-away team’s supporters’ end. There was singing, cheering, drinking and interactions with anyone within arms reach. Interactions like hugs, high fives or looks of excitement; all shared freely. 

Doing all of that is frankly easy when there is a top trophy on the line, but for every cup final there are at least 38 League matches. For some teams, a lot more games than that. At matches where the tape is removed from the floor, a supporter can show up at kickoff and slip into a seat at the bar unnoticed. Clubs like Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester City all have these US-based supporters’ groups. Each one is started organically, but these can quickly join the fold of corporate football that we only get a glimpse of through a television screen. 

Depending on the team, there are certain rules to adhere to in order to keep a quasi official relationship with the club that is supported. For example, official Liverpool supporters’ groups (or OLSCs) must have a meet-up for every match, have a club elected board representing their OLSC and are encouraged to post a lot of photos on social media. One area that doesn’t tend to get covered within the official requirements however, is the area of supporter mental welfare. Any responsibility for engaging with fans falls to those who run the local branch, that is, if they want to, and to be fair it is easy to suggest that there is no specific reason why this should happen. Reading this article right now, you might think that groups that support a team aren’t responsible for the mental health of those that show up to watch a match of football. Clearly, technically, that is correct, however what a huge potentially wasted opportunity. 

Football supporters show up at a bar at 7:30 in the morning in America looking to be part of something. Since social media is the go-to on advertising these meet-ups, there are people attending that see these events as a way to break away from their phones, be part of something real and make friends and engage. 

Having a trusted friend is the way that a lot of conversations about mental health begin. What better environment to find that trusted friend? Football can be even more of a catalyst for good if supporter groups could partially  shift their focus away from counting how many people show up and adding up the bar sales, and start to really talk to the fans, particularly those on their own.  

There are a few simple ways to do this: 

  1. Welcome people when they come into the bar: there are numerous people that will walk in, find a seat by themselves, and leave without anything said to them other than what drink they want. Initiate with people right away. This makes future interactions easier too. Say at half time you notice a person you met earlier in the match off on their own. That initial interaction could turn into inviting that person over to your table. Even if the person you invite over comes over and doesn’t warm up to the group, or say much, it doesn’t mean they won’t return and feel more comfortable.

I’ve made friendships out of repeat smaller interactions with people within my own local group. Friendships that stretched beyond weekend match days and into regular conversation and full-fledged friendship.

  1. Board members sit with people they don’t know: with great power comes great responsibility, so those in power should be sitting with the people of the club. Especially someone they don’t recognize. This is not an all-encompassing rule. There are also groups of friends that meet up at these matches and don’t want anything to do with the greater club, as a whole. Getting to know everyone in the group isn’t a requirement to be in the group, but there’s no excuse for leadership to not interact with someone there by themselves.

Personally, I’ve had a supporters’ group leader do the same, even when I was visiting a different team’s watch party. The club is the main reason for coming into the door, but the people within the group make people return week after week.

  1. Encourage regulars to do the same: we all remember school cliques. Supporters’ groups don’t need them. 
  2. Invite supporters that may need it: the tips above have been for those opportunities to interact with people that left their comfort zone to meet like-minded people. There are likely people in supporter circles that support a different team. A friend that banters back and forth about your different favorite sides. If they’re someone you think would benefit from these groups, bring them out to a match. In bars across the USA, there are people sitting within the supporters that align themselves with a different team or no team at all. Connections built within these times together are positive, even if the team’s results are anything but.

It would be great if there was a way to know who is suffering and looking for human interaction, but that isn’t always possible. Being an introvert doesn’t make someone a sufferer of mental health issues. Being an extrovert doesn’t either. When supporters’ groups start to focus on supporting the club and each other, match attendance won’t connect solely to how many trophies a team can win.  Other things are equally, or more important.

Once someone connects, it’s important to be prepared for any potential mental health discussion. Some people, when they’ve built a level of comfort with someone new, will share that they may be struggling. It could be as simple as them replying honestly to the conventional question we all ask people“how’s it going?” Also, maybe they have a change of demeanor that leads you to ask if something is wrong. 

Supporters’ groups are not a replacement for speaking to a mental health professional. That cannot be stressed strongly enough, but they can lead to conversations where the need for help is identified. The same way that a supporters’ group bar knows the number for the local fire department and paramedic for emergencies, a supporters’ group should know about local mental health resources in case a member of the group approaches for help beyond match days.

Even if these tips won’t help your corner kicks get past the first man, they’ll go a long way in helping people make friends and open up about their mental health.