Aston Villa is bottom of the English Premier League, with just one win in 20 matches
The Birmingham-based team is on the longest winless streak in its history
Villa likely to be relegated at end of season
Briton Jonathan Fear has overcome a brain condition, meningitis and a number of other serious illnesses as well as enduring a host of painful surgeries to correct birth defects in his ribs.
If nothing else Fear is a survivor, but in one key area of the 46-year-old’s life he’s ready to concede defeat.
“It was as if reality had dawned,” he explained, referring to events of a Saturday afternoon last October. “We weren’t getting out of it this time.”
Fear is a football fan, an avid follower of the English Premier League’s worst team during the 2015-16 season.
Sitting bottom of the 20-team table, Aston Villa has managed just one win in its 20 EPL matches. And that was back in August on the season’s opening day.
The poor run of form makes the Birmingham-based club almost certain to fall into English football’s second tier for the first time since 1987. Five years before that it was champion of Europe, and won the most recent of its seven English titles in 1981.
“I’m not used to defeat in my own life, I’m a fighter,” Fear told CNN. “To see the club I love not fight for us the fans and with me having no control over their lack of fight really does hurt.”
Fear resigned himself to relegation at the end of a 1-0 defeat to Stoke City over three months ago.
Villa’s disastrous performances have left the club marooned at the bottom of the table, 11 points away from 17th position in a league where the teams in 18th, 19th and 20th place at the end of the season fall into the division below – known as the Championship.
“I stood outside just gazing at the pitch as the crowd emptied out in utter bewilderment,” recalls Fear, a lifelong fan who runs the “Vital Villa” website. “After a while I turned and saw one of my other friends doing exactly the same.”
He added: “Fans are suffering. No doubt at all it has affected moods and caused a great deal of worry and discontentment.”
That discontentment was clear for all to see on Saturday, as Villa limped to a 1-1 draw at fourth-tier Wycombe in the FA Cup, English football’s premier knockout cup competition.
The simmering resentment among Villa’s fans boiled over when team captain Micah Richards was engaged in a heated discussion with some of the supporters who accused the players of not showing enough passion, with the exchange caught on television cameras.
After the match, footage emerged on social media of another group of fans unleashing a profanity-laced tirade at the players as they boarded the team bus.
For some, the idea of taking sport so seriously is difficult to stomach – “it’s only a game,” is a popular refrain.
To the 30,000 plus people who pay for tickets to Villa’s home matches, however, it’s much more than that.
So why not cut ties with something that is making you so miserable? After enduring 19 pretty awful experiences, why return for a 20th time – as thousands will when Villa play Crystal Palace in the league Tuesday?
“In a fast changing world there is a satisfying permanence about football clubs, an identity anchoring,” explains John Williams, a senior lecturer at the University of Leicester who specializes in the sociology of football and fan culture.
“Most are in the same locality they have been in for over 100 years. A true fan has an emotional tie to a club often mediated by links by family, place or significant events,” added Williams.
“One has bonds of loyalty to fellow fans as well as to the provider. Relatively few people feel able to change clubs. Fans often feel they have to ‘earn’ the good times, they feel sweeter as a result.”
Like many football supporters, Fear was introduced to his team by his father. “It’s in the blood,” says the die-hard Villa fan.
And, although Villa is on the longest winless streak in its 148-year history, the thought of simply supporting another team hasn’t crossed his mind.
“This is tribal and you don’t leave your tribe when times are hard, you stand up and fight even more,” said a defiant Fear.
“Villa is ‘what I do’,” he continued. “It is my – and so many fans’ – passion. It is also meant to be fun. I try not to let it get to me, but yes, it does.”
Allowing something you can’t control, like a football team and its performances, to mean so much to you is central to what makes the experience so stressful, says Dan Abrahams, football psychology expert and author of “Soccer Brain.”
“Control is a real mediator of stress and your natural human stress response,” explained Abrahams. “When a team is losing a lot, then your stress response is going to be tapped into time and again.
“If Aston Villa is a big part of your life and it presents a lot of meaning to you, then clearly it is going to make a difference to your health and well being.”
But for Fear and other long suffering sports fans, the bad news doesn’t end there. According to a study released in 2013, following a losing team can even make you fat.
Research by Dr Yann Cornil and Professor Pierre Chandon of the INSEAD Business School found, the day after a local sports team loses, fans in the relevant towns and cities consume more fatty foods, while people who live near a winning team enjoy a healthier diet.
So with their waistlines and well being seemingly on the line, what can Villa fans do to offset the effects of their team’s performances?
The key, suggest Abrahams, is to rationalize. Football is only a game and there are more important things in life.
If that doesn’t work, Abrahams’ advice is to find a distraction. If your team has just lost, find something else to do.
Whether it’s going for a drink with friends or taking your partner for dinner, get as far away from football as you can.
“It all sounds pretty drastic, doesn’t it?” said Abrahams. “But you’re asking these questions because people are really affected by the results of their team.
“If they can get away from the game afterwards, completely get away from football, that’s really important I think.”
For Fear, someone who regularly engages with other fans and media outlets on the subject of Villa, that’s easier said than done.
As he puts it, with tongue firmly in cheek, “I’ve had more enjoyable operations than these games!”