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Claire Doran, Fellowship's South East Area Manager, describes a months-long quest to understand football in Britain and some unexpected and surprising lessons about Fellowship she picked up on the journey.

I really should have taken the comment for the joke it was.

When a fellow ribbed that I wouldn’t last long as the Fellowship’s South East Area Manager without understanding how football works in this country, I could have laughed and let it fall to the wayside to dissipate.

Unfortunately, I have a terrible (and hopefully charming?) appetite for challenges. This offhand comment sparked a months-long quest learning everything I could about football, stepping into unfamiliar spaces to participate and follow it.

And you know what I discovered along the way? Some unexpected and surprising lessons about Fellowship.

Step 1: Watching the game
While others lounged comfortably, I leaned forward, brow furrowed, muscles clenched, eyes straining. Learning how to watch a football game was exhausting.

At first, I felt like a child. My brain couldn’t digest anything on the television screen. Without understanding the rules of the game or what I was looking for, my eyes couldn’t do simple tasks that were taken for granted, like tracking the ball. I struggled to prioritize the important parts of the screen to focus on. Just as I had my bearings again, suddenly the zooming camera angles flipped to a close-up of a player’s back or some scowling manager. I lost it again, disoriented, having to start all over.

“Where is the ball?” “Why did everyone stop and line up” “Why did that little man raise the flag?” “What’s happening now?”

Over time, with practice and incessant question-asking, I registered patterns in the movement of the players. I grew familiar with the changing speed of play, and began to interpret their motivations and strategies.

One of my proudest benchmarks was being able to identify when a goal had actually been scored. Only once I was familiar with parameters for a “goal”, and my eyes grew accustomed to tracking the sudden speed of the ball when launched by a player’s foot, I could evaluate the shot against those criteria in split seconds.

Understanding the trends lightened the cognitive load and anticipating the movements became easy, fun even. I began to… enjoy it?

Step 2: Watching the watchers
One spring evening my partner wanted to watch a particular game at the local pub (we didn’t have a TV license). It was a dusty little place, with old stained-glass windows, a bar in the centre of the room with a pool table. A trophy cabinet mounted on the wall was packed out with little in-memoriam pamphlets with photographs of regulars who frequented the place, retained from funerals.

I positioned myself in a table underneath the television with my travel watercolour kit and a travel pad of paper. I first sketched out their forms lightly with pencil, then nudged out layers of paint. Their forms emerged, a sense of their relationships and personalities. I noticed the wrinkles in their trousers, the pull of the buttons across their bellies, the casual sling of their hips, the tidiness of their tucked-in shirts and the brassiness of their belt buckles.

Watercolor painting of several men playing pool in a pub
A watercolour of regulars playing pool at the sports pub.

 

An insatiably curious gummy-mouthed man with a pint of beer and a cane kept passing by the table trying to discretely catch a glimpse, coming a little closer each time. Understandably so. I stood out. He worked up the nerve to ask me what I was doing (though he asked my partner’s permission to do so, first, which amused us both to no end). I showed him my painting the people in the bar and explained I was trying to take up some new creative habits. He was pleased and we fell into gleeful conversation. He kept swinging by throughout the evening to come and see how it was progressing.

By the end of the evening (and his beer), he was earnestly encouraging me. “You really ought to be proud of yourself, bubbah. That is so good. You’ve got to keep doing this! I wish I could.”

It felt quite radical, our grinning, budding camaraderie.

Step 3: Attending a game in person
My first-ever football match at Wembley stadium found me sat next to a rowdy group of thick-waisted men screaming at the players near the point of abusing them. They drank their beers enthusiastically and groaned bitterly about the quality of the game. At this point I had not yet learned what makes a “good game” and so listened keenly.

The man who had been roaring the most throatily at the pitch, all the muscles in his body swollen and taught stood up. As he turned to me, he suddenly adopted the most beautiful, upright, apologetic British mannerisms I have ever seen.  He begged my pardon, could we please let him past, so sorry but he just needed to use the loo. If I hadn’t been seated I think I would have fallen over.

The theatre of sport breaks all the cultural rules – etiquette, language, intimacy, emotional expressiveness... the way they all turn upside down and float away you’d imagine sport had broken the rules of gravity too! Quiet, spacey, demure people are suddenly eagle-eyed with razor-sharp focus, feverishly barking opinions. Individuals who prided themselves on their cool, distant stoicism fell impassioned, pacing and tearful. And my favourite thing - men drape their arms around each other and ruffle each other’s hair.

What parallel reality does sports crack open a door into? Suddenly, I was hooked. I needed to understand how that door functioned, and if I could somehow jimmy it when it would be useful. I had found the common ground that would draw me further and further in to sport because it was suddenly speaking my language – identity, behaviour, and culture.

Step 4: Reconciliation and transformation
I've decided Gareth Southgate is my newest teacher. He is an expert at identity, behaviour, and culture, just look at the details –the time and care he spent on building the team identity, instilling an awareness of the whole team’s assets. Note his applied, cool and consistent guidance, coaching this team into surpassing all expectations.

On Wednesday, by now a committed lover of football, I was heartbroken. Watching our panting players who had transcribed their fates with energetic strokes of their feet across the pitch, I felt my own body mirroring their bodies’ feelings, processing the reality and meaning of loss. I felt the ground supporting the tired bones and muscles of their collapsed figures. Their heavy panting. The sweat beading and steaming their uniforms. The adrenaline draining away to ethereal dissociation, gazing at the riotous leaping and tears of celebrating opponents, while being watched by disappointed supporters in the stands and around the world.

And then Gareth Southgate did the most beautiful thing. And this gesture - I believe that such a purposeful act could only be imagined and offered by somebody who had experienced, and deeply understood the emotional turmoil of a moment of visible failure.

He brushed down his iconic waistcoat and went around to each of his players, brought them in close, and held them, acknowledged them and their disappointment. He held the moment. He picked up the pen without forcing the narrative forward too soon. The moment would pass, he seemed to affirm – he knew because he had survived it himself. He bore witness to their disappointment, and in this touching gesture of empowerment going to each of these stilled people on the pitch, invited them to get up when they were ready, and walk forward into a future where they chose to see this positively.

My eyes still sting when I consider the impact of this generous gift to a generation of football fans. Southgate offers a model of responsibility, care, and leadership. He shows us that transforming the deeply-rooted wisdom gleaned from the mistakes of our past equips us compassion and wisdom. These are our roadmap for writing a new, different future. These give us hope, when there isn’t an evidence base for it.

Red and white petunias
Football petunias in my garden.

 

Learning from Fellowship
In the deepest core of language are assumptions and meanings that defines how we perceive the world. For example, take the word ‘teacher’ in English. It describes a person through their primary function of teaching students. It connotes authority, one-way transmission of information, and conjures the image of a chalkboard and a stern glare trying to keep rowdy students from bursting out of their desks.

Compare this with the Japanese word sensei (先生). It translates as “one who has gone before.” Here, the teacher is not defined by how they act toward us, but by their experience, the sheer passive virtue of their knowledge. It is thus the student who becomes active, seeking out these teachers in order to enquire, and to learn.

Who were the teachers in this story? Was it the fellow who challenged me? Was it the man at the pub? Was it very unexpectedly Gareth Southgate? Did I lead my own learning? Did I lead yours?

There are teachers (expected and unexpected) everywhere, and to make the most of the diversity and richness of our Fellowship, we must actively seek each other out as teachers and invest in applying ourselves when challenged to learn something new.

In the most foreign topics and experiences to which we have no natural connection or previous interest, there is connection and wisdom with the potential to transform us. We need to be willing to take risks, look foolish, and make mistakes, because the rewards are immeasurable - growing in creativity, delighting in the adventure, and gaining hard-won insights into each other and the interconnected systems that overlay and make up our world.

Only three months in post, and working with the Fellowship is transforming me. Who knows what a momentary encounter with fellows will challenge you to do? Are you ready to take up the challenge?

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