The crying game, and how to survive it
The glory game? Not for most of us. A fortunate few might be celebrating championships and cup wins, but for everyone else the last few weeks of the football season bring nothing but worry and dread.
Titles are lost. Relegation looms. Play-off places wink suggestively and then rudely rebuff advances. Sport, the love of our lives, becomes not so much a fickle mistress as an adulterous partner with the morals of an inebriated long-distance sailor.
Trapped in this abusive relationship is the humble fan, powerless to influence the very thing that exerts so much control over our happiness.
Can anything be done to alleviate this awful tension? How best to cope with the grief of season-ending defeats, with the anguish that accompanies an inexorable slide from mid-table obscurity to near-certain relegation?
Beset by footballing fears, desperate for answers, I sought out Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
"As biological creatures, we need to oscillate between tension and relaxation if we are to survive and thrive," he tells me. "The problems start with tension that's never relieved. When you're anxious about an event or outcome, like the position of your football team, the tension is 24/7."
Last-gasp home defeats to Bristol City should never lead to sleepless nights for anyone but the players involved, but such is the lot of the loyal supporter.
"You can't control the external event, but you can control your reaction to it," advises Hodson. "One of the easiest ways of doing that is to take some fairly vigorous physical exercise. That will make you tired, change your breathing, make you hot and then cool down, and that takes you into the phase of relaxation.
"If that's impossible, you can do it very simply if you clench your fists and squeeze all the muscles in your arms and shoulders as hard as you can for about three seconds, and then let go.
"You can also try to put yourself under a different kind of stress. Give yourself a different deadline. If you have a piece of work to do, that can be a different kind of tension and quite refreshing."
What of mental trickery? Telling ourselves that it doesn't really matter simply doesn't work, but how about thinking of better times, of losing ourselves in nostalgia or delusions of a brighter future? David Hirst has been retired for over a decade now, but thanks to the vaults of YouTube his unparalleled ability to lift the spirits of certain nameless bloggers remains undiminished.
"The trouble is that your brain is at war with your feelings," says Hodson. "Your feelings are one of dread, yet your brain says, well, these things happen.
"It is helpful sometimes to try to picture an image of when you were quite young, a day when you were gloriously happy. Look at that picture, see what the sky is like, and memorise all the elements.
"Imagine the happy picture and dwell on it in your mind when you're at your lowest. Because it's quite hard for the brain to feel both happy and sad, that can work quite well. It will take your mind off it for a while, and it's the release you're looking for."
An example of what for some people is happy moment from the past (Getty)
"Tis better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all," wrote Tennyson, and although Alfred, Lord never experienced the pain of a 4-1 thrashing at rain-soaked Vicarage Road in November, his famous words ring true to this day.
From a philosophical perspective, perhaps we need defeats to truly appreciate the victories. Maybe only through relegation can we truly savour the bliss of a 2-1 win at home to a rudderless Peterborough.
"If you want to feast you must fast," confirms Phillip. "If you want to enjoy your team's sporting success, there must be a contrast. If it was all 6-0 victories, it would be very boring. Being beaten is part of the game.
"Unless you care about the fate of your team, unless you're in love with them on some level, you can't experience that joy. But because you are in love with them, you are going to be let down at some point. Becoming vulnerable to the good stuff makes you vulnerable to the bad stuff. It's what we call unavoidable unhappiness.
"All love ends in pain at some stage. Even if you live happily with a wife or husband for 60 years, someone has to die first."
Fearing we were moving into somewhat morbid waters, I steered the conversation back to practical matters. Should the worst happen and the relegation whirlpool suck your boat down, is it better to drown your sorrows alone or with your fellow shipmates?
"We all grieve in different ways," says Hodson. "The thing is, does your method work? If you want to throw yourself into work for a while, or to tell yourself you don't care, that's fine - it's part of the grieving process. But if it's all about denial, your grief will still catch you up at some stage. You will be ambushed by the bad feelings.
"Anything that helps you get through that time is good. Sometimes the first thing to do is just to accept your feelings.
"It's good to feel, it's horrible not to. If the feeling part of your brain doesn't work, you can't even tell me what you want for dinner."
What of our real-life partners? Despite their best intentions, not all can appreciate what the distraught fan is going through. Can the offer of a cup of green tea assuage the bitter sting of defeat at Middlesbrough to a flukey deflected goal? Experience of those close to the author would suggest not.
"If you know that your partner is upset, don't try to tell them it doesn't matter, or that it's only a sport," advises Hodson. "Instead, say something like, 'I can see you're gutted, I won't say another word'.
"There are many people who can't access football emotionally or mentally. If, for you, football is life and death, yet you're living with someone like that, they need to work quite hard to be supportive.
"It's not about '11 silly men kicking a ball into a net', it's about whether your partner's feelings of distress matter to you. If they don't matter, you don't have a relationship.
"What's interesting is that supporters of the team that wins have a much higher sex drive than supporters of the team that loses, and they often express it. Try to upset that research by making yourself do it that night, or be a great lover, because you'll get a sense of euphoria from it."
So there we have it. Go for a long run, throw yourself into work or put in a blinder between the sheets. Or, should you have the energy, attempt all three. Administration - where is thy sting?