For fans, deeply personal and abusive tirades shouted from the stands are just part of the matchday experience. But as Alex Christian discovers, for the players on the receiving end, the psychological toll can be devastating
It was the biggest match of Jermaine Jenas’s career. As he walked down the tunnel, the roar of 36,000 supporters reverberated in his bones. He thought how impressive the stadium looked, how crucial it was to perform on his Tottenham debut. Failure wasn’t an option – not if he wanted to establish himself as a Premier League star and fulfil his dream of playing at the World Cup.
During his final stretches before kick-off, he felt serene. “I remember thinking, ‘This feels perfect: I’m in a better team, my game will improve,’” Jenas says. And then his name was announced. “It’s the thing that stands out from that day: there were boos.”
Jenas had signed for Tottenham amid strong interest from bitter north London rivals Arsenal. That, coupled with recent pictures of him on a stag do with close friend, Gunners left-back Ashley Cole, was enough for some Spurs fans to turn on the 22-year-old – before he had even kicked a ball. “It put me in a bad mood,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘What’s going on? You’re taking the p*ss. I’ve not done anything yet and you’re booing me.’ When I debuted for Newcastle, the place erupted; I used that confidence moving forward. But now, my thinking was, ‘Well, why would I want to play for you, then?’”
Booing blighted Jenas’s early Spurs career, creating a vicious vortex of spiralling abuse that even sucked in his family. “I had a terrible start. I remember coming off the pitch a couple of times thinking, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ All my mum would hear were fans shouting, ‘Jenas you’re this, Jenas you’re that.’
“It got so bad that she said, ‘Jermaine, I can’t do this anymore. It’s affecting me too much. I’m arguing in the stands.’ She stopped coming to games for a year. It affected my confidence on the pitch and I wanted to leave the club.”
Football fans are meant to sing for their team and boo the opposition – it’s what creates the fabled matchday atmosphere. Without it, the sight of 22 men lumping a ball around a deathly silent stadium would soon become mind-clawingly dull. However, in the fiery, emotional cauldron of live football, support frequently boils over into something a lot less supportive. If you’ve ever been to a game, you’ll have heard the four-letter-ridden chants aimed at star players. You’ll have seen the V-signs flashed at the subs warming up. You’ll have felt the specks of saliva hit the back of your neck from the red-faced bloke a row behind going full Joe Pesci at the goalie. And here’s the kicker: more often than not, the abuse will have been directed at their own team.
It’s part and parcel of the game. Players know what to expect; they’re professionals, after all. But they’re also human. And while they may not be able to pick out every word of every individual insult, they get the picture – and it can be a nasty picture, at that. So what toll does this relentless abuse take? “Fans will always try to put the opposition off their game,” says Stuart Hill of the Mental Health Foundation. “But it’s when supporters turn on their own players, often when they’ve made a mistake, that can be much harder to cope with.”
It can certainly cause a dip in performance. As a torrent of F-bombs rains down on a player for an over-hit pass, human biology comes into play. “A stress response means a spike in the hormone cortisol,” explains Dan Abrahams, sports psychologist to AFC Bournemouth. “That can impact a player’s brain and nervous system, and give them tunnel vision. Their awareness decreases: they don’t see the space, the movement. It impacts their anticipation, they’re slower – mentally and physically. In essence, their whole function on the pitch decreases.”
Human performance consultant Kevin George, author of Soccology and once a player for Charlton Athletic, says some ex-teammates would suffer in front of home supporters. “Kevin Lisbie said he felt more comfortable playing in the reserves, where he was scoring for fun. In the first team, the fans got on his back – he didn’t score as often. When Jason Euell started poorly after becoming their record signing, the fans gave him awful stick, saying he wasn’t worth the money. I’d be very surprised if he said he was never affected by it.”
Form may suffer. But given that most footballers are in their twenties – and some still in their teens – can a young man’s psyche be scarred by the insults and incessant jeering? Hill thinks so. “Players get it tough. Football is still a macho environment. They won’t want to show weakness; they don’t react to whatever is shouted at them. But abuse can absolutely affect a footballer’s mental health.” He cites the example of German goalkeeper Robert Enke, who took his own life in 2009 after battling depression. “Enke’s widow has said that he struggled to cope with abuse he received after making mistakes.” Clearly, the psychological impact can be devastating.
The beautiful game has always been tarnished by horrific abuse. But now there are signs that it’s on the rise: football equality campaign Kick It Out received record reported incidents of racism, sexism and homophobia in the 2016-17 season. And in February, chairman Lord Herman Ouseley said that the 38 per cent rise of discriminatory incidents from last season should be a “wake-up call”.
David Goldblatt, sociologist and author of The Game Of Our Lives, believes that the hate on the terraces isn’t an isolated problem, but a reflection of wider British society. “There’s abuse in football stadiums because there’s abuse everywhere,” he says. “What goes on in football is what goes on in the country – it’s simply dramatised and made public in a way that you don’t see in other spheres of everyday life.
“It’s the consequences of grotesque economic and social inequality. Throughout the 20th century, the majority of abuse was directed at black players. As late as 1996, Chelsea’s Ruud Gullit was subjected to racist abuse from rival fans. That has definitely declined. But social media has changed the game. It makes players more visible and more vulnerable – people have the hand grenades ready to throw.”
The rise of Twitter trolls has undoubtedly caused abuse figures to spike. In 2012, England defender Micah Richards closed his account after receiving racist tweets, while research by Kick It Out found 134,400 discriminatory posts across social media between August 2014 and March 2015. And it was only in May that Merseyside Police investigated online death threats made against Liverpool keeper Loris Karius and his family following an error-strewn performance in the Champions League final.
Ex-player Ben Smith, author of Journeyman and Brighton U16 coach, believes social media has made it even tougher for young footballers, who must now endure abuse not only on the pitch but also at home. “When I was a kid I was so sensitive to what people said: I’d either had the best game of my career or my worst. It would’ve been unbelievably hard if I’d had to worry about what they were also saying on social media.
“It’s down to individual clubs to help a players’ mental health – it can’t just be down to the FA and Kick It Out to tackle abuse. I think clubs are doing more, and teaching players about social media helps. It’s not there yet, but it’s getting there.”
Some players never recover from the wounds inflicted by their fans. Jenas, however, turned it around at Tottenham – so much so that he made England’s 2006 World Cup squad. Even though he won his fans over – and his mum started watching him again – he heard the vitriol of rival supporters loud and clear. “When we played West Ham at home, I went to take a corner by their section,” he says. “They started chanting homophobic stuff at me, such as, ‘Ashley’s boyfriend, Ashley’s boyfriend.’ You don’t want to turn around and shout, ‘I’m not gay, what’s wrong with you lot?’ because they’ll think, ‘We’ve got him.’”
Despite a career pockmarked by abuse, the midfielder-turned-pundit still considers himself one of the lucky ones. “I was quite a mature young player,” he says. “I’d already captained Nottingham Forest and England U19. But if I hadn’t had that personality or mindset, then I could’ve gone a different way with the stick I took: clammed up, turned to other things for comfort, gone out and drunk too much.”
Jenas was fortunate to have been able to play through it. But what of the others? The footballers who seriously struggle with the abuse they’re subjected to? In 1999, mental health was simply another easy target for fans. “When I played at White Hart Lane I heard Spurs supporters sing, ‘You’re mad and you know you are,’” remembers ex-Aston Villa striker Stan Collymore, who was treated at the Priory for depression. “It’s seen as ‘banter’ in a football arena, but it can knock a young player.” That season, a previously prolific Collymore scored just once in 20 league games for Villa.
Thankfully, though, there are signs that times – and fans – are changing. “We’re coming into an era where we can talk about the mental side of the game and accept that it’s not a weakness,” says Jenas. “It’s more accepted that you’re struggling. It’s brilliant – and I can only see it improving.”
The pantomime boo and light-hearted heckle will always have a place in the stands at the football. But maybe, just maybe, the line will be drawn there, and the career-threatening, trauma-inducing taunts will be permanently retired from the game.