How will this season go? Can Norwich get promoted? What if it all GOES HORRIBLY WRONG? There’s plenty to be worried about ahead of the Championship campaign, but Dan Brigham says fear is a crucial part of enjoying sport: so embrace it
Why are there so many horror films?
They’re everywhere. They’re in the attic, they’re in the woods, they’re down in the basement, they’re behind you. There are originals, sequels, remakes; all part of an insatiable quest to fulfil cinema-goers’ and couch-dwellers’ needs to be scared witless and shitless.
Yet, how many of them are actually good? Compared to other genres, there are few classics. Unlike most films, we’re not looking for excellent acting or clever narrative or, you know, an actual storyline in horror films. We’re just looking for a few hairs to spring up in fear, to feel the heart pulsing a little quicker, to brush your teeth afterwards expecting something monstrous to pop up behind you in the mirror. Many of us, it seems, get a kick out of fear. We actively seek it; a moth putting on a shell-suit and setting its satnav for the nearest fire.
Fear lingers not just in the cinema, but when we watch the sports teams we support. Alongside excitement, anticipation, community and loyalty, fear plays its part in drawing many of us back time and time again to Carrow Road.
As the season approaches, fear is there right now: the short-term fear of a bad start, the mid-term fear of Alex Neil spilling his magic Championship potion, the long-term fear of several years, maybe more, of Championship football stretching ahead, like an astronaut left stranded on the moon.
Whoever said “do one thing every day that scares you” obviously hasn’t seen their team losing to Sunderland in a relegation battle. Watching Norwich last season – and for the majority of the past 10 years – has been a constant, blind choice between one door leading to heaven and one door leading to hell (it’s why the draw in football acts as a comfort blanket, a lovely pillow to rest your fearful head on when losing). Yet, match after match, we willingly let that choice be made for us, and we keep coming back for more.
There is always fear in football: the real possibility of disappointment in most matches, heart-break in some. Penalty shoot-outs at the Millennium Stadium. The thought of Wes Hoolahan not performing well for Ireland. The moment your goalkeeper comes to collect a cross. The ribbing (total abuse) you’ll get from a victorious (dickhead) opposition fan at work on Monday morning.
We are drawn to fear: rollercoaster rides, bungee jumps, climbing trees, bundling down hills on a sled, telling scary stories around campfires. It's why A Christmas Carol is perhaps the most popular work of fiction in the English language, why TV schedules are crammed with shows like Most Haunted and Ghost Hunters. Fear is addictive: when you feel scared, a set of neurons get busy and trigger your fight or flight response. Pupils dilate, your palms go sweaty and your body takes a hit of dopamine and adrenaline. In other words, you feel more alive: we fear, therefore we are. And isn't this what sport is all about? To feel more, to be more alive?
Think back to the play-off semi-finals against Ipswich, when those neurons got super busy, charging around your body and hacking down everything in their path like Gary O’Neil against Stoke. For many, fear was the prevailing emotion in the build-up to those matches. Norwich were expected to win, and the thought of them not doing so was far more horrifying than any phallic-jawed alien on a spaceship. It’s why being in a Premier League relegation battle is more fun, more visceral than being mid-table: the fear makes you care more.
Without fear, without the anxiety of it all going badly wrong, without the clammy thought that your Saturday night, entire Sunday and Monday morning might be ruined by moping self-pity, sport becomes just another humdrum part of life: it is washing your face, it is taking your dog for a walk, it is choosing which soup to have for lunch.
It applies on the pitch too. The need to play without fear is often trotted out; it's why psychologists have become an integral part of all sports. Matthew Pinsent chundered over the side of the boat ahead of the coxless fours final at the Athens Olympics, Zinedine Zidane was sick before taking his penalty against England at Euro 2004, Monty Panesar (allegedly) had a bowel malfunction while waiting under a high catch moments after dropping one. The fear of not winning, of not scoring the penalty, of not taking a crucial catch didn’t shut down these international sportsmen, it made them more alive (in stark contrast to Norwich’s fearful performances at Bournemouth and Aston Villa, where the raging fear made them not come alive, but play as if they were digging their own graves with tea spoons). Without that fear among the players, we’d just be watching wrestling.
So, when you’re making your way up to Blackburn, or settling back into your pre-match routine ahead of Sheffield Wednesday, don’t worry about that fluttering anxiousness, that mild dread you might be feeling. Have a good worry about the upcoming season; feel free to think of Worst Case Scenarios. Maybe get in the mood by sticking The Exorcist or The Shining on the evening before and turning all the lights off.
Without the fear of it all going horribly wrong, sport would be nothing. The horrors of losing at home to Sunderland are just as integral to the experience of following Norwich as the joys of winning at Wembley. So embrace it: get your fear on.
You can follow Dan Brigham on Twitter at @dan_brigham