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The neuroscience behind missing Sunderland... despite the worries and heartaches!

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There is something addictive but intangible about the excitement and adrenaline rush created by being present at a big win, or even a well-executed 1-0 away result against the odds.

Sunderland v Ipswich Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Why are we as supporters hooked on football, and live games in particular? There is a “shallow” answer, something along the lines of “we just love football” or “I am Sunderland ‘til I die” or an equally true and similar phrase.

But I would like to go a little deeper - especially during this lockdown as there is more time available for reflection and even contemplation. I have worked within neuroscience research for a few decades now, so will take a look at the topic from that angle.

This virus-influenced time – my wife and I are not going out aside from exercise as well as some visits to a vulnerable relative living nearby – has shown me how much I love and miss football. Obviously, Sunderland is my first love, but life is just not the same without all the football “chatter” going on, mainly on Radio 5Live, SAFC websites and in the print media.

Although Roker Report and other fan websites are manfully providing great content in what is essentially a news vacuum, we all know that it is not the same without input from real games and the very compelling gossip that surrounds them.

Match of the Day just does not work when it is Gary Lineker, Ian Wright and the monotone Alan Shearer burbling about the beautiful game with no real action.

There is something addictive but intangible about the excitement and adrenaline rush created by being present at a big win, or even a well-executed 1-0 away result against the odds, surrounded by opposition fans when the defence held firm and needed to. Or even the occasional 3-0 away win at Newcastle...

The human brain will endure a lot of everyday dross for an occasional “high” – and neuroscience tells us that this is dopamine driven. This notion is illustrated in this quote from the film Art School Confidential:

What do you think the artist thinks about? Do they think about fine wines or black-tie affairs? No, they live for that narcotic moment of creative bliss. A moment that may come once a decade, or never at all.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, passing on signals in the brain, and is responsible for many of the pleasure signals we experience. We go to games partly to meet with family and friends, to feel we belong to something bigger, but I would argue that the main driver is the “high”, or reward we feel when a great goal is scored or we see a historically great display on the pitch.

The brain has several distinct dopamine pathways, one of which plays a major role in the motivational component of reward-motivated behaviour. The anticipation of most types of rewards increases the level of this neurotransmitter in the brain, and many addictive drugs increase dopamine release.

So, as we look at the neuroscience behind being a football fan, even the anticipation of a good game, and that may be irrational, is enough to make us feel good.

Sheffield United v Sunderland AFC - Carabao Cup Third Round Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

I define a fan as someone whose mood is influenced by a football result and that certainly applies to all of the Roker Report writers. In my last piece for the site, I mentioned some lingering memories of the smell of Bovril and cigarettes at Roker Park. It was not that that got me hooked, but to my young brain it was the amazing atmosphere at Sunderland’s home ground that had a formative effect.

I remember Sunderland’s 1968 last day of the season win at Old Trafford really clearly – I was very young and had just been to my first Sunderland home game, a 0-0 draw the week before against WBA by cycling from Boldon to Roker Park. The climax of the campaign was upon us and the Lads were clear of relegation, having won 4 times and drawn 4 on their travels, and got the points in 8 home games – the team were on 45 points in the modern, 3-points for a win parlance.

The magic of that season-ending day in my young consciousness was that Man. City were playing at Newcastle. Sunderland were expected just to roll over and let Man. Utd. win the league, since Best, Charlton and Law were in that great team, with Man. City ending as runners-up. Well, Sunderland stunned the Reds in a 2-1 win, with goals from Colin Suggett and George Mulhall - Hurley, Todd, Stuckey, Montgomery and Porterfield also starred that day.

I was then of course hooked as a fan, seeing the game in black and white later on Match of the Day. Man. City capped it all by winning 4-3 at St. James’ and gaining their last title before modern Guardiola era, in an amazing climax to the 1967-68 season.

As grown-up people with jobs, I believe that we often can lead fairly humdrum lives and have to behave ourselves; wear nice clothes, be polite, go to work, rein in our true feelings, be responsible.

But when Saturday comes round, we can go to a game, let our hair down, shout at the referee and jump with joy when our team scores. In terms of neuroscience, we are moving from being affected by stress hormones such as cortisol and allowing that feel-good messenger dopamine to take over.

I am not suggesting that following Sunderland is stress-free, as recent relegations and some miserable winless runs we have endured. However, watching season two of Netflix’s “Sunderland ‘Til I Die”, the passion generated during games is tangible, and “terrifying” according to Charlie Methuen.

I would argue that neuroscience is part of that; currently we are all missing all the dopamine-driven highs that football can bring.