RED MIST: INSIDE THE MIND OF AN ONLINE LIVERPOOL FAN - The Anfield Wrap

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FOOTBALL dredges up extreme views from some fans, and Liverpool supporters are no exception, writes PAUL McCABE. We are guilty of overreacting to events, underestimating the abilities of some talents at the club and generally being irrational. Maybe it is the age of social media or the 24 hours sports news cycle, but there does feel like there is a collective impatience — a search for blame and “I told you so!” gloating when things don’t go so well.

With age, I am starting to see people, events and life in general in a more balanced way. This involves taking as considered a view as possible, trying to see things from a range of perspectives (both extremes and settling somewhere in between), questioning my assumptions and using empathy rather than blame. With football, though, it is still difficult. I am still rationally irrational — still caught up in the emotion, the hysteria, the highs and the lows.

It is a form of mental torture (and perhaps mild insanity) to let the fortunes of a group of multi-millionaires and the people overseeing them dictate your mood, yet many of us do just that. Irrational thought is synonymous with being a fan (short for “fanatic”, let us not forget) devotee or political activist. We choose this, and most of us know that it is not always beneficial to our mental well-being. Depending on the performance of something over which you have no direct control, and where there are so many volatile elements — whether it is a football team, the economy or a company’s share price — still drives many people to the point of distraction.

Keeping that in mind, I thought it would be worthwhile to explore the different thinking styles fans employ. This is not to judge or accuse, but more to acknowledge that we engage in fallacious thinking and blinkered arguments a lot. It is more of a survival guide. I do all of these myself, and sometimes will run through this emotional gamut within a 90-minute match, let alone a 38-game league campaign.

Football - FA Premier League - Fulham FC v Liverpool FC

1: Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is when you are already convinced of someone’s ability, intention or character, and then see everything that happens through that filter. Any evidence to the contrary will be discounted.

An example would be those who see Brendan Rodgers as a “fraud”. So a season where the club finished second in the league with a record number of goals scored was explained away as “just lucky” and a season when the club generally fared poorly and finished sixth is meant to support the hypothesis. Those who cling to this belief see everything Rodgers does in that context:

  • He speaks a lot, so he is a “fraud”
  • He has not said anything for a while, so he is clearly a “fraud”
  • He has kept Colin Pascoe, but ditched Mike Marsh: he is a “fraud”
  • Oh wait, now Pascoe has gone too: erm, “fraud”.

The characteristic of “fraud” (“a person who makes deceitful pretenses”) has not been adequately explained in the context of a manager who has been involved in and studied the game for many years and managed Liverpool for three.

Similarly, those who see Brendan Rodgers as a gifted manager will couch disappointing decisions or results as not being the fault of the manager, but other forces — be it bad luck, an unrealistic mandate or being undermined by political forces.

Bias also happens with players. If a player is not rated by the critic, good performances will be described as a “purple patch” and bad performances will be filed in the “see? Told you so!” folder. People have already formed their opinion and, instead of trying to question their assumption, they generally see everything with that opinion as being the only possible explanation.

The owners do not escape this either. In some quarters, there is a sense that FSG “don’t care enough” and those in their employ lack ambition or that the club is “clueless” in the transfer market. Maybe they do not “care” in the way some fans might prefer, but they are, by their own admission, businessmen, not fans of football.

In this broad view, people who have worked in business, football and sports ownership are collectively “clueless.” This is brought up when a coveted player does not sign or the club spends too much on a player that is not as well-regarded by many in the fanbase. It is strange that, when things are not going well, the default position is that those in charge are considered “clueless”, “idiots”, “frauds” and it is as though no other possibility exists.

So, if the view is that the club is “clueless in the market”, any evidence (recouped sales or acquisitions that are generally well-received) that might hint at the contrary is dismissed. It simply slips by that you do not sign a slew of £20m+ talents, develop the stadium, dramatically bolster the club’s commercial presence and still…“lack ambition.”

2: False Equivalance/Analogy

These fallacies occur when we describe a situation where there is a logical and apparent equivalence, but when in fact there is none. It happens so casually that it usually just skips past us. For example, it happened quite a lot when FSG (then NESV) took over the club, as they were unfairly compared to Hicks and Gillett — merely by virtue of also being American businessmen.

We do this a lot during the transfer window. Example: player X scored 30 goals for Team Y, and they were rubbish, so imagine how good he will be and how many he will score in a team like ours. It is often more in hope, but it rarely pans out like that, and players who did well in a comparatively weak team are just as likely to shrink or grow when transferred to a team with better depth or talent levels.

We can cling to stats, prophesise about fantasy formations and (to varying degrees) apply false equivalence. It is pretty much unavoidable, as none of us can see the future and we can use stats to equally damn a player, owner or manager as we could to praise them. It is a numbers-centric world and you can spin the digits and cook the books to support your bias.

I have seen it with reference to Firmino too, with Brendan Rodgers saying how he enjoys working with South American players. There have already been allusions to Suarez. No pressure, then! There have been some highly-talented South American players who did not exactly take the Premier League by storm (Robinho, Crespo, Veron in previous times and Cuadrado, Falcao and Di Maria last season).

No two transfers or set of circumstances are the same. Being a success at a club in tangible terms (e.g. goals, assists, silverware, earning the respect of peers) comes down to the individual and, to some degree, the manager bringing out the best in him.

 

The game is full of lazy stereotypes and snapshot generalisations. Whether or not a signing works out has less to do with where he was born, and more to do with talent, how willing he is to improve and how he fits into the structure. There are so many variables, some intangible, involved in making a transfer successful. These include neglected aspects like the mindset of the player, how he is embraced by the fanbase (and what that means to him) and how he and his family settles into the city. These are the human aspects of a transfer and will not feature on the Opta stats.

This bias towards “foreign buying” conveniently overlooks the numerous signings from overseas which have simply not worked out (sometimes for similar reasons to their British counterparts) over the years. These are deleted from memory and will occasionally be excused as the “manager never had faith in them” with no regard for the question of why that might be.

Liverpool’s policy of spending a lot on English talent has attracted criticism — and that probably seems fair if you use Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll as the poster boys for this “failed policy” — but I think success stories like Daniel Sturridge and Jordan Henderson suggest it is never as simple as “just buy foreign.” Historically, Liverpool have signed some brilliant talents from within the English leagues — Gary McAllister, John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, Ian Rush, take your pick. Even at that, citing past counter-examples is false equivalence, as no two talents or situations are exactly the same.

Too many Liverpool fans cling to past regimes, using previous events to justify or condemn what is happening now. It is conducive to mental torture, and it is also a fallacy. We do this optimistically (“Shankly had a couple of lean years too”) to sheer pessimism (“If Rodgers continues on his path, we’ll be mid-table in no time!”). Digging up old, out-of-context quotes from legendary figures does not justify anything. Sometimes it is done to inspire hope, but other times it lazily suggests that another individual would have dealt with a current situation differently.

Just to create a bit of balance here, we do tend to use false equivalence when we argue for a manager to be retained or fired. Those who favour giving Brendan Rodgers more time will point to Arsenal and United being rewarded by keeping Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson. They point to longevity bringing stability and success. Equally, though, those who believe that managers should be axed the minute things start to fall below expectation point to the fear of stagnation and of not winning anything again. It is not an exact science.

Football - Liverpool FC Preseason Tour 2015 - Day 1

3: “Catastrophising”

We turn a lot of negative situations, results and events into outright catastrophes. In actual fact, they are just events. An example of this would be when Liverpool were on that terrible run at the start of last season. A lot of fans were writing and parroting words along the lines of “that’s it! We’re going backwards! Rodgers OUT!” It crops up after every defeat.

It presupposes that things simply cannot get better, that players will not improve and that the manager is incapable of putting things right. Some people do believe this, of course. This also leads to the straw man argument: when someone rationally states that things might be better than the commenter or critic described, they might be met with “So, you’re happy that we’re basically turning into Norwich?!”

You see this at the match or in the pub as well — if someone is not kicking over a table, or frothing at the mouth at a bad decision, they “don’t care.” They must not care, after all, as “caring” in football has become tied to outbursts, rage and mild aggression. In reality, there are different types of showing you care and different ways of thinking about and responding to events.

Sometimes managers are categorised based on how they react to events. If they are a bit more detached and reflective like Rafa Benitez, the media will write them off as aloof or “not caring enough”. What a catastrophe it is not to throw your gilet on the pitch, headbutt the ref or get sent to the stands for a foul-mouthed tirade. In truth, while the air is invariably blue when I am watching Liverpool play live (due to sheer nervous energy), there is a real value in being more restrained and allowing yourself to think things through — in everyday life, as well as football.

“Catastrophising” is rarely presented in any real context. By its very nature, it is borne of irrational thinking. Doom is clearly the only outcome — “we’re becoming another West Brom, lads!” This is usually followed up with something mildly apocalyptic like “might as well get Big Sam in!” And if the manager is not swearing at the media, he must “lack passion”.

When we engage in this limited style of thinking, we rarely stop to put the result or event in its proper context. Every team will lose, and every club will miss out on a signing they pursued or, indeed, not even pursue a signing that some deem essential.

“Catastophising” also overlooks the difficulties of running a huge enterprise like Liverpool Football Club. Complex problems are often met with simple requests: sack the manager and “sign Reus!”. Failure to do so is seen as a catastrophe. Yet firing a manager involves blueprints being ripped up, money being paid out, staff being laid off and new plans being drawn up. Signing a player is not like going to the supermarket. Players are not just sitting on shelves waiting to be bought, and sometimes they are unaffordable, unattainable or simply want to stay put.

Disappointment shows up for every team and club, of course, but some Liverpool fans seem to see certain events in the context of a downward spiral. This is where the confirmation bias kicks in: if you already believe it, you will find evidence for it everywhere. This is particularly true when Liverpool sign a player from a smaller club (“why are our rivals not after him?!”) and ignores the fact that not every signing can be world-class. Indeed, not every successful team has been full of world-class players: there has to be a balance of skill, personality, desire and affordability.

Football - FA Premier League - Liverpool FC v Manchester City FC4: (Blind) optimism

Again, by its very nature, blind optimism is borne of irrational thought. How could you look at a situation fairly if you are “blind”? Nobody really knows anything for sure, but for 25 years and counting I have remained blindly optimistic that “THIS is the year!”. Nevertheless, in my experience, it is infinitely more fun to be around someone who is optimistic than someone who is full of doom and gloom.

A situation just IS. Whether you bring enthusiasm or pessimism to an event, the event itself is unlikely to change. Only your experience of the event will be different. Those who tend towards optimism will get excited when things are going well, enjoy the moment, and savour the occasion, while more pessimistic thinkers are likely to enjoy the moment to a lesser extent and temper it with “well, wait until it all goes wrong again!” Things will go wrong, but you cannot fully enjoy life or football if you are always worrying about darker days ahead. It is equivalent to saying: “I can’t enjoy today, because I know tomorrow is going to be shit.” You can and, really, you do not.

Blind optimism is probably what I feel about the signing of Christian Benteke. I do not see how he fits in, but I am optimistic, merely because it is not exactly a catastrophe. If your club is signing a proven goal scorer for a relatively high price, there are generally more things over which to be optimistic about than pessimistic.

Brendan Rodgers clearly sees something in Benteke. It clearly is not a panic buy. Conversely, it may not work out, but rather than ready the “I told you so!” rebuke, I will accept that these things happen. We all have theories and ideas and, whether you are doing cartwheels (metaphorically or literally) over a signing or fuming with disdain, it does not change what is or what might be. In other words: it is happening anyway and it is simply not healthy to become enraged about something that could prove beneficial to the team’s fortunes.

5: Moving the goalposts

This ties into the “wait until it all goes wrong” style of thinking. It is actually quite entrenched in our culture, and is a big part of the political sphere. If your argument falls down or prediction does not come to fruition, you can shift it on to something else. It happens when people have already made their mind up and, regrettably in my opinion, a lot of fans seem to have written certain people at the club off before a ball is kicked on the new season.

An example of this was Liverpool in 2013-2014. Those who rated Rodgers saw the campaign as evidence that he was a very strong coach, while others moved the goalposts. Those who wanted to damn Brendan Rodgers with faint praise claimed the season was down to Suarez. Yes, it was ALL Suarez, of course. A more balanced view suggests it was down to there being no European football and, while both arguments have merit, plenty of teams have world-class talent and no European football and still fail to hit the heights Liverpool hit that season. Look no further than Manchester United last season and, yes, that IS some false equivalence for you.

We all do this to an extent. What-ifs and if-onlys. If Jurgen Klopp was hired and was not deemed an instant success, his supporters would claim he was hampered by the massive rebuilding job Rodgers left for him. Those who supported Rodgers would claim that Klopp undid all the good work, and the club had been on the verge of “turning it around.” Managers, pundits and fans “move the goalposts” frequently. You like what you like, defend what you like and you see what your biases condition you to see.

We do it with players too. As open-minded as I am with regards to Benteke, I have read some comments that, even if he scored 20 goals next season, he would be a bad signing as he might affect the way the team plays. Ifs and buts, for sure, but seems like conclusions have already been reached. The “goalpost” has been moved before he has even kicked a ball for the club. I can see a scenario where, if Liverpool did finish in the top four with Benteke scoring over 20 goals and some assists, a proportion of fans would insist he stopped the club winning the league or minimised the effectiveness of another player.

Football - FA Cup - Semi-Final - Aston Villa FC v Liverpool FCHow to get over the biases

Knowing you are being biased can generally lead to a place where you are willing to challenge your unbalanced thinking. I do think it is important to set criteria (e.g. in tangible terms and other than title glory, what can be considered a “success” for Liverpool next season?) and be prepared to start afresh and see things anew. Give everyone at the club a chance and see how things unfold. Also, if you go into any venture with positive intent and looking at situations with a balanced perspective, neither cynical nor wide-eyed with optimism, you will tend to have a better appreciation of things.

I say this as much as a reminder to myself as an attempt to offer perspective, but scapegoating when things go wrong does not help anyone. Curiously enough, neither does “hindsightism”, as both reactions lead to a blame culture and undermine the reality that so many variables are involved in making a club and a team function effectively. Analyse and critique, rather than blame and finger-point. The past can be instructive, but dwelling in it is not helpful.

Undoubtedly, it is harder to be rational here. We live in 24-hour news cycle and every move is scrutinised, every flaw amplified and there always seems to be “where did it go wrong?” (never “right” incidentally) chin-stroke every day. You could debate the whys and wherefores of signings (too many, too few, the wrong ones), team selections, formations but too often a bad result can boil down to the scientific principle of “shit happens”.

There will be tough days ahead, no doubt, and the players, managers and owners will make mistakes. So too will those who succeed them. That is an inevitability in football and in life. The way to diminish hysterical and irrational thoughts is in the neglected act of starting afresh, seeing things as they really are and not constantly harking back to previous mistakes. The past is done and Liverpool can only move forward with respect for the present and hope for the future.

If you start to see things in this way, you might just enjoy the journey more.

@paulfrombelfast

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Pics: Getty/David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo

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