One of my father-in-law’s favourite aphorisms is “expect nothing and you’ll never be disappointed”. Although not the most positive outlook on life, there is a kernel of truth in his wisdom.
Mo Gawdat, in his book Solve for Happy, discusses why people are happy or unhappy, content or dissatisfied, calm or frustrated in any given situation. He believes the primary factor is how we set our expectations in life, driven partly by the illusion of control against a backdrop of a universe whose natural state is “entropy and chaos”. He states that “happiness is equal or greater than the perception of the events of your life minus your expectations”. In summary, whether “life is going my way”. Importantly he follows on: “It doesn’t really matter what life is, your happiness is defined by whether you are OK with it.”
Reflecting on the nature of different expectations in football, so much anger, disappointment and frustration arise when our expectations are out of step with reality. As the World Cup is now firmly under way, people’s expectations about how England should perform are high after the emphatic 6-2 result against Iran and an exuberant 3-0 victory against Wales. In the moment experiences rarely choose to connect with our rationality so the soporific US match is now merely an aberration. We can now restate our history as inventors of the game and our perceived inheritance as the natural home of the World Cup, an expectation inconsistent with the data pointing to a solitary win more than fifty years ago.
Even before a ball was kicked, there was moral outrage around the expectations we have of the host country, Qatar. Football clearly has the power to open a dialogue when our expectations of another nation’s values do not align entirely with our own. As Qatar has put itself on the world stage through the World Cup, it has rightly opened itself up to the debate on issues such as LGBTQ+ rights and the treatment of migrant workers. Even if these are not new challenges just in the Middle East, the debate is now front of mind and has allowed us to think about our own track record as well. For example, it is estimated there may be 136,000 modern slaves the UK. Equally, the fact there are few openly gay male footballers in the UK tells us we have some way to go.
It is clear that football holds a unique place in people’s lives and all supporters have expectations about the game and each other. The exchange of time and money bestows a right for supporters to express their opinions and expectations for their national team or local club. We have witnessed the paradox of expectations as the emotional immediacy of results can run up against the rational reality of a long-term commitment. Coming together on matchday is about the immediacy of the result but in the long term there is an immutable relationship supporters have to their team and desire for it to continue to exist.
The majority of supporters at Grimsby I speak to are committed to the long-term journey but inevitably some supporters are on a “hedonic treadmill”, focusing on what is missing rather than what we have together. As a mindset this is exactly what Gawdat describes. Eighteen months ago Grimsby were relegated from League Two, saddled with a squad and debt which needed remedial attention. In spite of that we were able to bounce back into the EFL at the first time of asking. We now sit mid-table in a competitive league that is a step up in terms of quality and organisation from the National League. To see the alternate reality we only have to look 40 miles down the M180 to Scunthorpe, recently relegated, currently second from bottom of the National League and looking for an investor to take on the club and its ongoing losses.
I was thinking about these expectations at a recent game when we went 1-0 down after five minutes. Someone in my earshot started shouting negatively and I wondered what their expectations were when they go to a match. That no one will ever score against us, that we will never lose, never have an off day? We all clearly want to win every game but that is an unrealistic expectation. The minimum requirement is we see effort and commitment from our team; a sense that as a club we are committed to trying to continually improve all areas of the organisation, the infrastructure, the capabilities and the ambition; all while trying to make the business sustainable.
I do not expect us to win every match, particularly in a first season back in League Two. We know football is a game of fine margins and sometimes you win and play badly, sometimes you lose when you play well, and everything in between. If we can guarantee and commit to give our best to try to keep improving on league position each year in a way that is sustainable that will be success. When we move on as shareholders it is important the business does not crumble or go into administration, because no one will buy an unprofitable, debt-laden club. Unrealistic expectations are the enemy of joy and short-term changes often offer an illusion of control and improvement.
As Gawdat indicates, although we do not have control over all of the events in our lives, we do have control over how we set our expectations and how we react to events. Instead of being the place where you go to express your anger at life the first chance you get, football could be the place where you go to build relationships, to imagine and make real what a happier life looks like through connections. I go to games wanting to win but not expecting it every week. I do go to have the world’s best fish and chips, to be around my brothers, my friends, and the growing community of Grimsby supporters that share the club’s values, love the town and are committed to the journey even when we lose the odd game or two. Whereas the result can affect our moods, it’s the long-term improvements and the relationships that will fuel our souls.