Anxiety is not much fun. It inhibits decision-making, and induces either a manic energy fuelled by the demand to get something (anything) done or a paralysis through the fear that whatever is done will fail. And it can spread through a football ground with remarkable speed.
At Villa Park, the game had been even for much of its first hour – indeed Villa’s young team could make a case for having had the better of things, with Christian Benteke’s rustiness the only thing between the home side and a lead. But the crowd were getting edgy – all around me in the pricy home seats, sotto voice grumbling was turning into audible groaning. Then Romelu Lukaku scored and the anxiety, rooted in a dismal home record, washed over the crowd and out on to the pitch.
Passes were misplaced, players looked to get rid of the ball rather than find a man and Gabriel Agbonlahor barely got his foot through it when a very presentable chance arrived. Everton, whose close triangles had broken down too quickly all through the first hour, were suddenly lording it and a gold run soon delivered, well, not a Blockbuster goal, but a clear run from halfway line to goal. Villa collapsed more quickly than a teenager caught by his mother enjoying a Miley Cyrus video on the iPad.
It’s often said that players are, despite claims of its being “The Twelfth Man”, oblivious of the crowd, but anxiety seems to flow back and forth like a tide. Maybe they hear the sighs as a pass is misplaced, feel the pain as a team-mate is scapegoated (there’s always one and often more) or maybe they simply catch the mood with every glance at the scoreboard and every thought of another defeat.
But that raises two questions: why are football crowds so keen to induce anxiety and why can’t players (otherwise so mentally and physically strong) resist it?
Perhaps the crowd (and by extension, the players) subconsciously enjoy the anxiety, its familiar and expected presence balming the pain of a (by now) inevitable defeat – the quicker the misery begins, the quicker it’s over. Right?
If that’s a plausible explanation for the generation of anxiety, what accounts for its impact on men buttressed by years of self-belief and success? Maybe this is where sports psychology can play a role with its countering of Steve Peters’ Inner Chimp, the atavistic animal that lives inside our heads telling us bad things about ourselves.
And maybe it’s time for football, and it could start at Villa, to spend more time inside the heads of its players, the better to understand, and then address, the anxiety that grips, and then strangles, a side on the slide. Surely that’s got to be a better use of time than another couple of hours in the gym.
Meanwhile Everton’s Martinez Plan delivers again – its instruments seemingly totally convinced of its merits, confident and, dare I say it, entirely free of anxiety.