I've long since got out of the habit of checking the league table on a regular basis. There was a time five or ten years ago when I'd compulsively check our current position and upcoming fixtures, then work out all the possible permutations. I would do this every day, as injury news changed, or other fixtures were played elsewhere, and the other pieces on the chessboard shifted.
I got out of the habit when the scenarios I was running in my head had to reach a startling level of fanciful optimism just for something interesting to happen. Finding your team at the bottom of the table and doing complicated fag packet maths for a possible route to safety isn't a great deal of fun. Worse still is finding them absolutely nowhere, playing out the final weeks without a sniff of playoffs or a relegation battle - no matter how hard the players seem to try to manufacture one.
So, I settled into a blissful ignorance of giving the table only a casual glance and of never looking too far ahead. My rationale was: if you don't delve too deep, just take each game as it comes, you'll enjoy it more.
The problem with that is that I don't exist in a bubble and occasionally exhibit a degree of emotional intelligence. I might not have known where we were in the table, but everyone else did and I could tell they were pretty mad about it.
Negativity is a potent force, and easily spread. If the terraces were that rife with it, it exists within the dressing room - more so, with players' entire lives revolving around the club. No office politics to distract them during the week, not like us; office politics in football is misplaced passes and wasted set pieces.
It must be close to impossible to find form in that sort of atmosphere, when 15,000 people are reinforcing your insecurities on a Saturday afternoon with the sound of their collective disappointment. But looking at the twin cases of Nick Blackman and everyone's favourite Once and Future Pariah Hal Robson-Kanu shows that it is possible to re-calibrate the machine.
Nick Blackman, benefiting from a move into a genuine striking role, is scoring goals. And Robson-Kanu by most common wisdom is performing far better than last season. Although, I didn't think he was playing that badly last season either - particularly in the cup run - he came up with important goals and important assists at important times. I know, I know, he still plays better for Wales than for us, but those performances away from our prying eyes and disappointed noises have been an important part of his rediscovery. Let’s keep a few of those slices of humble pie we’re eating for Blackman in the fridge in case his form continues to improve.
It’s part of the psychology of groups that, having spent enough time together debating a subject, they gravitate towards the strongest and most extreme view in the room. Football fans are the perfect example of this, opinion swinging violently between extremes depending on the prevailing viewpoint. That’s part of the joy of supporting a team, you plunge yourself completely into a world detached from the day-to-day that contains from moment to moment a sense of importance and urgency so strong as to trump anything else that is going on in your life. Weeknight games you see this the most. So many people suited, straight from work, loosen their ties, scream, shout and scuff their Clark’s size nines on the concrete kicking every ball, then stand up, pick up their briefcase and go home.
The Moral High-land
It’s a powerful mindset, and a cathartic one for most people - even in losing that joy remains, in the form of shared experience (and if the Favourite Pariah has misplaced a pass, a sense of satisfaction that you were right about him all along). When the team is playing well, the shared focus is on winning and on the opposition, when the team are playing badly, the focus tends to shift a single player. The collective enemy becomes the enemy within and the noise of the crowd changes - it’s found a scapegoat. Both Blackman and Robson-Kanu have played this role in the last year, before them it was Jobi McAnuff. The list goes back to the dawn of time - to misquote Highlander - there will always be one.
This scapegoatery is playing a vital role in the collective dynamic of the crowd, someone to direct our sighs, groans and occasional throat-straining expletive at. But negativity is the easy way to achieve that collective dynamic, it’s harder to galvanise around positivity. (Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into an in-depth analysis of Corbyn-mania, but I’ll have that chat with you if you want…)
There’s a sense of optimism around the club at the moment, stemming from the positive moves made in the transfer window. The team looks talented, and assured. Our midfield looks so classy Everton had to take off a striker at half time and bring on the good ship Gareth Barry to sail the stormy waters in front of their back four.
The team is still bedding in and finding its rhythm - there’ll be turbulent waters of our own before the season is up. Let’s remember how it feels now and try to hang on to that as the nights draw in and we head into the winter months.