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Why it’s hard for humans to be Hornets

Friday 28 September 2012 by

We’ve been very lucky to have lots of people email us asking if they can write a piece for our blog. We welcome such offers with open arms, and our latest excellent contribution comes from Jordi Connor
Jordi has been supporting Watford since October 1984. At his first game stood on his tiptoes in the Vicarage Road end watching Watford take on Coventry.His random Watford claims to fame include seeing Trevor Senior score, meeting Sietes, and scoring six goals during a charity match at the Vic a couple of seasons ago.
You may think it’s an obvious statement, but read on to find out why it is hard for humans to be Hornets.

This is a human fly, not a human hornet!

On the whole, supporting a football team is great. Not only do you get the sense of community and camaraderie that we all crave, but as the famous quote goes, you also get to care passionately about something that doesn’t really matter.
Yet for all the tribalism and welcome escapism it provides from the churn of daily life, there are some aspects of being a football fan that clash with human nature – particularly so if you support Watford right now.
The reasons have rather fancy names, but if we recognise them and how they influence us, then perhaps we can enjoy the journey the club has just embarked on. The Power of Now!
The first reason affects fans of all clubs and is called Hyperbolic Discounting.

In a nutshell it means we tend to give disproportionate importance to immediate rewards – we’d rather have a smaller prize now than wait for a bigger one.
For example, if someone offered you £100 right now or £120 in a year’s time, you’d probably be inclined to take the cash right away. It also explains why you’ll eat a chocolate bar now when you want to look good on the beach in a few months, or smoke when you know the painful consequences that may await you later in life.
When you think about it, it makes sense. You might not be around in a year to claim the money. And who cares if you eat that slice of cake, you can do some exercise to make up for it later. In humans, impulsiveness and weak willpower come as standard.  A bird in the hand and all that.
The problem is when Hyperbolic Discounting affects us as fans.
We picked our team years ago. Or it picked us. Either way, we’re stuck with each other for life.
Rationally, we should take the long term view. So what if we have some dodgy results now? Just so long as it is part of a plan to make us better tomorrow. Look at Manchester Utd, their fans are still reaping the rewards of their board’s patience when Sir Alex Ferguson made a slow start after being appointed manager. At Watford we don’t even expect success; we’re not used to it. Surely we’d be prepared to accept some bad results at the start of a new reign – especially one that is being overseen by a group who has enjoyed success in Italy and Spain.
Well no. We lose 5-1 to Derby County and people are spitting feathers. Some even went as far as to demand Zola’s head.
Is he mad? Selling Martin Taylor! Get him out!
Never mind that

  • the transfer deadline meant all business had to be concluded by the end of August
  • we have Nosworthy, Hall, Neuton and Ekstrand in the squad who can play at the back
  • Taylor is 33 in a couple of months
  • he played when Derby stuck four past us two years ago
  • he was offered a longer and better deal by Sheffield Wednesday
  • he is from the North East and probably wanted to go anyway

No. What mattered is that we’ve lost RIGHT NOW. And we’re vulnerable to set-pieces. Forget the long term plan, forget seeing the bigger picture. We didn’t get immediate satisfaction and we’re angry. Human nature in action.
The alternative is to show some willpower and overcome our natural desire to live in the present. I’m not suggesting we become robots, devoid of any emotion. We can, and should, still be upset and frustrated after a bad performance – but we should see it in context. Last season we were delighted with a mid-table finish. Can’t we accept that there will be some bad results as foundations get put in place? Shouldn’t we be prepared to write this and maybe even next season off? It might not be fun in the short term, but if it works our patience will be richly rewarded in due course.
It’s not as if we were likely to get promoted before the Pozzos turned up anyway, so what have we got to lose? It’s hard to be a hypocrite
The second reason that it’s hard to be a football fan is down to something called Cognitive Dissonance. This is particularly relevant right now for Watford fans coming to terms with the new ‘Watford Way’. In essence, Cognitive Dissonance is the feeling of tension that you get when you have conflicting beliefs. It’s what makes it hard to be a hypocrite.
Here’s an example of it in action…
A man who prides himself on being quite smart and astute with his money buys a new car. He’s quite happy with his purchase until he reads several reviews slating the model for poor handling at high speed. This upsets him because he considers himself to be shrewd and believes that a decent car should be able to be able to handle high speeds, yet is being told that his one doesn’t. This tension leaves him with three options.

  • First of all he can find other reasons that the car is still a good purchase and outweigh the bad features – it has a large boot, is cheap to service, is a reliable make, is very comfortable etc.
  • Alternatively, he can reduce the importance of the causes of the tension – he rarely drives on the motorway so handling at high speeds isn’t a major concern
  • Most drastic of all, he can change one of the causes of the dissonance – either sell the car or admit he’s not as clever as he thinks

So why does this matter to us?
Well, when you think that there are 90 odd teams in the top four divisions and plenty more at non-league level, it’s hard to rationally justify supporting the team you love. If the dream is to win every game, why would you pick a team that never wins anything? We all like to think we know about football and make smart choices in life. Yet we support Watford.
So when we try and rationalise being Hornets, either to ourselves after another defeat or amongst our friends who follow teams stocked with the world’s best players and who regularly challenge in the Champions League, we ease the dissonance by diminishing the importance of winning all the time.
We also start to elevate the importance of things like

  • supporting your local team
  • being part of the community
  • not being a corporate plaything
  • being loyal and promoting from within
  • having a great academy
  • having a team full of locally born players
  • match day affordability compared with top flight clubs
And so on.
The problem is that we are no longer locally owned but part of an international project based in Italy. What’s more, our first team squad suddenly looks rather cosmopolitan and our beloved Academy has been ‘downgraded’. Worse still, loyal and popular staff have been shown the door. And to top it all off, we are planning on getting promoted and staying up.
Many of the long cited reasons for being a Hornet have been pulled from under us. This has caused Cognitive Dissonance amongst many fans. As in the example of the chap who bought the car, an extreme solution would be to stop supporting Watford, something that very few of us would ever consider.
The other option is to embrace the changes, find new reasons to be cheerful and diminish the importance of the old justifications.

  • Do foreign players really care less than locals? Did Heidar? Barnes and Blissett were both born in Jamaica, would we rather they hadn’t signed?
  • Does it matter that we aren’t reliant on our Academy? I’m sure Harrow is a hotbed of young talent, but isn’t it better to have access to a pool of promising players from around the world, some of whom who have already represented their country?
  • Does it matter that our owner is foreign? Fair enough, we did alright with a bloke from Pinner, but would we prefer to go back to a Stanmore based businessman? Or have Englishmen like Simpson, Ashcroft and Petchey in the boardroom.
  • Haven’t we used loan players before? Cleverley, Lansbury, Webber, Cork et al. The difference now is that if they make the grade we’ve benefitted and can sign them – we’ll have developed our own players, not Man Utd’s or Arsenal’s. If they don’t cut it, we’re not lumbered with huge wages and long contracts like under previous regimes. What’s the problem?

The status quo has been smashed and change brings uncertainty which can make some people uncomfortable.
However, change can also bring improvement and opportunity.
If we take a moment to step back, we can see that there are still plenty of reasons to be proud and excited to be Watford fans, they are just different to the reasons we’d have given a couple of years ago. And many teams will envy us for them. Come On You ‘Orns!
While supporting Watford is an emotional decision and not a rational one, it’s great to be able to list off reasons that make the club special. Out of the blue things have changed dramatically and no one asked us for permission. As fans we have to adapt.
Whatever happens with ‘Project Pozzo’, the Club at least (and at last) appears to have owners with real ambition. While there is no guarantee that they will accomplish their objectives, we can be sure that there will be many downs as well as ups as they try.
It’s going to take a while for them to achieve what they want, but they’ve shown with Udinese that they are in for the long haul. Like it or not, we are too. Those of us still around in thirty years will still be trundling off to the Vic every fortnight (hopefully the East Stand will be sorted by then) regardless of the division we’re in.  So, as fans we have a choice. We can give in to human nature and moan and groan every time a result goes against us and ruins our weekend. We can snipe about the foreign players and wish we remained ‘Little Old Watford’.
Or we can choose to embrace the opportunity we’ve been given. Try to keep our eyes on the prize, fight our instincts when things don’t go our way and try to enjoy the journey, wherever it takes us.
I know what I’ll be doing.  
By Jordi Connor – @jordiconnor

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