Fear and Joy

Sport is fear and sport is joy.

The joy of victory, of vanquishing opponents not by shutting them out, but overwhelming them in a fury of thrilling improvisation.
The joy of belief, like a sudden shaft of spring sunlight, instantly warming the heart, pushing aside the memories of countless dismal winters, decades of grumbling hopelessness and wishful thinking.
The joy of belonging, the simple pleasure of sharing a glance with fellow fans, like we’re all in on some gigantic exciting secret.

But it’s a joy haunted by fear.

A fear that at any moment, we might wake up.
A fear that we might find the dream that had brought us such joy, such hope, dissipating from our minds like a morning mist.
A fear that months later, years later, we'll cast our minds back, and struggle to remember that glorious sensation, that golden age when we believed anything was possible.

Liverpool versus Manchester City was a tale of fear and joy.

For the first half hour, joy prevailed.
We were fearless. Flowing.
Playing like carefree kids in the park.
A teenager has the coolest head of all, slotting home, in front of the Kop.
More pressure, roars and gasps, until a bullet header prompts delirium.
How we jumped and bounced and yelled with joy.

Buzzing, we look down from our heady clouds.
And wonder at how high we really are.
And realise what a long way that would be to fall. 

Blue waves begin to threaten, we sense the gusts of a gathering storm.
The buzz of joy becomes a tingle of fear.
How similar they feel, a pulsating throb in our throats.
Close shaves endured, but we stand firm. Just about.

At last, half time.
We blow out our cheeks, and wipe our palms dry.
We nudge those beside us, smile and dare to dream.

When we return to the field, we know it’s out there.
Somewhere. Waiting, lurking.
We hoped our joy would protect us, insulate us.
But fear was stalking us, ready to shock us with its sudden pounce.

Their first goal triggered a cascade of uncertainty and doubt.
Fear does funny things to the limbs, it dizzies the mind.
Once we played like warriors, now we flounder like drunken clowns.
Five minutes of increasing anxiety culminates aptly.
We contrive to scramble the ball into our own net.

Now we look down, and realise what a long, long way it is to fall.
How painful it will be to hit the ground.
When there’s no margin for error, it’s never just a football match.
It becomes a trial of character.
Every mistake could be the one that brings everyone crashing down.
The moment that destroys the dream.

Now it’s not about pressing and diamonds, or holding midfielders.
Or tactical reshuffles and runs between the lines.
It’s about overcoming the fear, the instinct to run and hide.
The basic primal instinct to stay safe.

How do you fight the desire to flee?
Does a dressing room mantra spring to mind?
Or a psychiatrist’s counsel in a Teesside lilt.
That fear can never be dismissed, only mastered.

What if you discovered a magic ring?
What if when you slipped it on your finger, your every fear vanished.
Suddenly, where once were problems, now there are only possibilities.
You stop hesitating, and start being who you want to be.
Wouldn’t that be the most powerful artefact in the entire world?
Just imagine what you could achieve.
You could do anything.

A moment of bravery.
Then everything changed.
A young full-back leaping in to win a header, when he could have stood off.
A Brazilian fighting for the loose ball, earning it with his determination.
A kid from Wembley driving forward, spreading jitters among the men in blue.

Because the funny thing is, fear doesn’t take sides.
Fear stalks all equally.
Perhaps its insidious influence scuffed the ball to the edge of the box.
The Brazilian wasn’t afraid that he’d miss.
Courage enough not to demand another touch.
He trusted himself, and hit it instinctively.
And we lost ourselves in a glorious moment of redemptive bliss.

The game resumes, the ground in ferment.
Our collective rush of joy corroded again by our nagging fear.
This is the time for brave hearts and resolute minds.
Headers are won, desperate blocks are made.
One too recklessly, and we’re a man down.
Fear will do that.

At last, the whistle triggers an explosion of repressed emotion.

This does not fucking slip now!
This does NOT fucking slip.
Listen, listen!
This is gone.
We go to Norwich.
Exactly the same.
We go again.
Come on!

The leader exhorts: be brave once more lads.
Because the next game isn’t really against the men of Norwich City.
It’s against the doubts and anxieties in their own hearts.
Fear will be lurking at Carrow Road, waiting.
Each must face the anxiety of wanting it too much.
And the perilous complacency of not wanting it enough.
Disquiet mounting with every misplaced pass and wayward shot.
And suddenly we’re chasing a game we absolutely need to win.

We’re so high up now.
So close.
Such a way to fall.
How would we ever recover.

Were you ever this anxious playing footy in the park?
Can you remember those gloriously long summer days?
When we just ran, and laughed and played.
Just for the joy of it.
There might be a lesson there somewhere.
I do hope in growing up, I haven’t forgotten it.
Because just imagine the awesome possibilities
Of a life without fear.

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