Where to start when you’re writing about beginnings? A blank page stretches out with any number of possibilities to take you from that beginning through the middle and to the end. This blank page starts with an unlikely success story—and with me.
In 2015, something weird was happening in the Premier League. Leicester City, a side who the previous year had finished 14th and six points from safety, were getting results. They were hovering around the top of the table. They were looking likely to qualify for the Champions League. I remember it vividly not just because it’s one of the biggest stories of recent Premier League history, but because it’s so intertwined with a new chapter of my life.
I’d been with my partner for about a year. He grew up not far from Leicester and was following the Premier League with a renewed interest. We watched a couple of matches here and there. He narrated the story for me, filled in the gaps, and told me why this was big and new and exciting. Like a lot of people, I’m a sucker for an underdog story and he knew it.
He also knew my feelings towards football. They were mostly projections, based on a lack of understanding and a lack of interest. There was distaste, antipathy and a lot of judgement. I felt intimidated by it. I felt certain of its rampant misogyny and its aggression—its very clear way of saying ‘you’re not welcome here’. I was put off by the dazzling amounts of money involved. Honestly, I thought the game was boring and the culture ugly. It’s so easy to dismiss something without properly engaging with it, and to treat something with contempt rather than seek to understand it.
In October 2015, just after the beginning of the 2015–16 season, I started a new job at a Rape Crisis Centre. It was a big move. My life has significantly changed since that time. There have been enormous shifts in who I am and the prism through which I see the world. It is hard to imagine a before sometimes— a time when everything around me was not filtered through a lens of trauma, both held and perceived.
Why should something that can give so much to so many be marred beyond all recognition, so that the things we love about it are difficult to hold onto at all?
Trauma work is heavy. Sexual violence and trauma has affected my worldview and my relationships. I have a lower tolerance for things and for people. I enforce my boundaries intensely. Any work can be difficult and exhausting; we all need outlets and spaces for release. What I need are alternate worlds that exist away from the world of my work.
On 2nd May 2016, I went, reluctantly, to see a play. I obviously didn’t know that this arbitrary date would end up being a defining moment in the title race. My partner was watching Chelsea v Spurs at a friend’s, a Leicester fan, and I was restless and eager to check my phone. In the pub afterwards, nobody cared about what was happening at Stamford Bridge. I was buzzed and excited and lonely, and kept myself glued to my phone screen. The play I’d seen was about sexual harassment and I was with work colleagues. I felt like I should have been more engaged, had more to say on what we’d seen, but the excitement of the match was intoxicating. It was a huge game. The Premier League was on the line! The ‘Battle of Stamford Bridge’ would go down as a defining moment of the Chelsea / Spurs rivalry. Spurs went onto the pitch that night knowing that if they won they’d hang onto their hopes of winning the title. Chelsea knew they could snatch the hope away.
Little did I know that this would set the scene for countless days and evenings to come; spent away from a TV screen, trying to recreate some sense of atmosphere over WhatsApp, desperate to share whatever theatre was being played out somewhere I couldn’t see. The feeling was magnetic.
Football can be catharsis. The theatre and the drama and the thrills can be pure escapism. Even the lull of a dull game, with its familiar, banal commentary and the low roar of the crowd, is white noise. There’s meditation to be found in its minutiae. Everything else falls away. There is so much to be found in football; relationships, community, belonging. Incredible, energising stories of personal and collective achievement. Of defying the odds. There are tears and heartache and disappointment. There’s anger. Anger is powerful. I can connect with my body and my anger in 40 minutes of a 5-a-side match. I can connect with my anger while being a spectator. Anger doesn’t have to be negative and cruel; it can be constructive and liberating. Football is a stimulus, an outlet for my feelings, an interest I can connect with that takes me away from trauma work. It’s sometimes so evocative it can be difficult to describe.
This is the football that I fell for. This is the football that gives some form of release from my work with trauma. It is easy to view football as narrative, to paint pictures of villains and heroes, and spin a thousand tales from distant glories and crushing defeats. It can beat the highs and lows of the very best dramas. The scripts can’t be written or predicted.
But football is not fiction. The escape is fleeting.
Leicester City won the Premier League on that night in May. Spurs had a now-infamous meltdown and their chance was blown. It was all over. I sat alone in a McDonald’s on Twitter, constantly refreshing the incessant stream of reaction and watching the squad’s viral celebration. I was buying into the myth of Leicester’s fairytale.
The dominant narrative in the wake of their win was that the status quo was being overturned. This was a new dawn. Anything could be possible. It’s appealing, isn’t it? A nice dare to dream story wrapped in an idealist bow. The Big Five monopoly on the Premier League had been disrupted. The little guy had won.
Dig a little deeper (just a shallow dig will do; these stories were covered in mainstream media) and that fairytale is just an illusion. In the winning Leicester side there was a racist and a transphobe. There was a perpetrator of domestic violence. I’m not sure when exactly I found out who their squad consisted of. But I did know. At first, there was the disappointment that comes with something so horribly predictable. I felt angry, frustrated and resentful. There’s an unofficial motto we use at work that I didn’t have available to me at the time: shocking, but not surprising. The actions of abusers, racists and transphobes are not surprising because they are terrifyingly common. They are entrenched in society and, for the most part, they go without challenge. Back then, I had a naive realisation that football is not somehow miraculously immune to the same problems we see everywhere else. The same problems I see in trauma work. I felt guilty, like I was doing some form of disservice to the work I do—almost like a betrayal. I also felt like I’d betrayed myself, conveniently forgotten the truths I already knew about the sport. That distaste, antipathy and judgement came hurtling back. Maybe I hadn’t been wrong.
Awful people are not new. They exist everywhere, and in all industries. They are in the films we watch, the music we listen to, the books we read. The knowledge can be agonising. Football is the same. The problems in football are much like the problems elsewhere—they are structural and are held up by enormous systems of power.
Football can never be a true escape because it isn’t a story. There is no fairytale with a happily ever after. It’s all too real. The sport is not immune to the outside world, it exists within it. It reflects the truth of the world right back at us, and that truth is ugly. The systems that underpin elite football are so inherently violent, the racism and misogyny so fierce, that it’s a wonder I’m able to separate from trauma even for a passing moment. How could the Leicester story provide any form of release from my work in sexual violence, however brief, when a first-team starter is an abuser?
Racism is trauma. Protecting powerful, abusive men is trauma. Capitalism is trauma. We are back in the real world; one that is dizzying in its voraciousness.
So I did what I have done before. I held onto the knowledge. I held onto it and carved out a space for it. Why should the actions of terrible people mean the rest of us have to turn away? Why should it mean that the sport can’t be for us? Why should something that can give so much to so many be marred beyond all recognition, so that the things we love about it are difficult to hold onto at all?
Despite what some people—mainly privileged white men—like to say, football is inherently political. It has always been so, and will always be so. Women played football in front of crowds of tens of thousands to raise money for charitable causes during the First World War. Football was played in concentration camps. A French resistance fighter used football to help children escape the Holocaust. The politics is inextricable. I knew this when I turned to football and began a relationship with it. I knew it because those preconceptions I held were rooted in the knowledge of the current state of football. It is a hugely capitalist, patriarchal behemoth. And I turned to it anyway. I am here anyway. Because I don’t believe that football is not for me. Because I can see the glimmers of what football can be outside of what we typically associate with it today.
I am here because I believe the reality can be held. The violence, the ugliness and the astonishing greed can be held in the same palm as the euphoria and the escape. Nothing is as pure and uncomplicated as we wish it to be. Because this is the world we live in. Football is a microcosm—or a macrocosm— of that world.
But holding is also not enough. I have to hope, and believe, that change is attainable. Change happens in increments and increments are always possible. The work is already being done. From antifascist, cooperatively owned clubs and the Fans Supporting Foodbanks Initiative founded by Liverpool and Everton fans to radical, inclusive tournaments that advocate for Palestinian rights and the end of deportations to the women fighting period poverty in grounds and stadiums across the country, it is happening. And that’s just in the UK.
We have to recognise and acknowledge the bad to truly transform it. Part of that acknowledgement is about accountability. It’s holding ourselves and others to account at every opportunity. If very few people are talking about abusive men in the game keeping their positions of power, we can start that conversation. We can keep those conversations going. The politics of football means those conversations can go further; we can talk about social issues, such as mental health, racism, LGBTQ+ rights, gentrification and displacement. We can put pressure on clubs. We can refuse to participate, to celebrate, to give them our money. We can encourage transparency and push for the change we want and deserve. We can ask clubs to publish their financial accounts, to run food banks, to provide free sanitary products, to engage meaningfully.
It feels like a paradox; this thing that has become so enormous in my life began as a potential for escape from trauma work. It is certainly not so now. They are too intertwined. But I won’t let go. It may not be the respite I had conjured for myself at the beginning but, through it all, I know what it can give. For me, it is the joy, the drama, the connections with emotion, people, place. Despite everything, those things are still there. They cannot balance out the bad, or erase it altogether, but I see the flickers of possibility that exist within them.
My naivety has faded and there have been, and will be, internal reckonings. Football requires the same level of investment and critique as everything else in my world. I’m here and I’m willing to do the work. Because you’re here with me, through my beginning and to this end, I hope you are too.