R’ Gen contributor Ben Summer writes about the bizarre nature of his brief return to stadiums and the general impact matchdays have on us all.

If you picked the date and opponent from a random QPR fixture I’ve attended in the recent past and quizzed me on the finer details of my matchday experience outside of the game itself, I probably wouldn’t be of much use to you.

Similarly, if you asked me what I did on any given day in the last year, you’d get the same generic answer for all of them (“same as usual really, I was at home”). Except for the one day when I was lucky enough to see QPR play – actual, real-life, QPR, at a proper stadium. As it turns out, there’s a psychological reason for why this one day stood out above all other lockdown days, and above all other football matches.

Going to a football match never fails to feel like a bit of a treat. Everyone has their own routines – it might be a few pints in the Crown and Sceptre, or a right naughty pack of Haribo from the White City branch of Tesco. ‘R’ Gen editor Sam is a religious programme purchaser, and I’ve got a habit of dragging my childhood best friend (largely unaffiliated when it comes to football, and by no means a QPR supporter) to games with the promise of a lunch of saveloy and chips.

However, whilst still retaining that residual feeling of a fun day out, the misery of crushing defeats and endless rainy days in your seat (which will inevitably find itself just out of the reach of the roof’s protection from the elements) can sometimes make it feel a bit routine. One loss blurs into another, and joyful victories can be remembered more by the feeling of surging euphoria than the finer details of the day itself. You might recall the scorers, or specific moments of quality, but you wouldn’t usually remember the cost of your train ticket or what you had for lunch on any given visit – and why should you? 

As with pretty much every part of life, the COVID-19 lockdown has flipped this directly on its head. If you were lucky enough to attend the fixtures against Reading or Stoke in December, cast your mind back – do you find yourself remembering the sort of mundane details that would otherwise have blurred into the mass of other useless information you’ve accrued on journeys to Loftus Road in the past? Does this day stand out among the months of monotonous lockdown?

If so, there might be an explanation. Sarah Manavis wrote a fantastic article in the New Statesman last year that explained the dull, indistinguishable procession of one similar day after another in lockdown. She quoted Edinburgh University’s Professor Robert Logie, who explained that our brains build up memories by adding to previous ones. If we have a new experience, the memories will all be fresh – but on the other hand, “if there is nothing unique about a particular event, then the precise details will be forgotten rapidly.”

In other words, you’ll remember things properly if they’re unique, but they’ll be downgraded to an effective re-run of all your past memories if they’re a repeat experience – think of the classic “clip show” episodes of sitcoms in the 90s. You likely don’t actually remember the route you drove or the train you took to the last home game before lockdown – you remember the route you took every week before that, dating back years or decades. If you passed through the same roads and took the same turns, your brain didn’t see the point in retaining that information again. It just pulled a CTRL-C and CTRL-V of your last relevant journey. 

On the flipside, this explains why I remember my last trip to West London in crystal-clear detail. I remember the number of chips on my plate when I grabbed a hasty Uxbridge Road dinner. I remember the exact texts I sent to my housemate as kickoff was approaching. I remember the three specific options of trains into London I had planned, in irrational fear that I might miss the only football match I’d attend for over a year. I remember the shopfront of each stall I passed in Shepherd’s Bush Market, as I aimlessly wandered round after arriving inevitably early. I remember specific runs that Albert Adomah made along the wing, and Stoke’s individual missed chances at the Loft end, in a level of detail that I never would for a non-lockdown game.

All this information (needless to say) is pretty much useless. Our hominid ancestors would be disappointed in me for retaining in my mind the number of steps I had to climb to reach my randomly-assigned seat in the South Africa Road stand – there’s no survival value in that. On the face of it, there’s no reason to have to remember this day in such fine detail.

But, as Professor Logie highlighted, I remember it because it was different, because it was to some extent; unique. I’m nowhere near qualified to say that for certain, but it makes a lot of sense. A visit to the football, which might in a normal year have been mundane, was a sparkling standout in an otherwise incredibly boring year. I think it stood out for most people – for a crowd of around 2,000, we were a lot louder than usual. Loftus Road, always beautiful but also often rainy and grey, was almost mirage-like in the cool winter air. It seemed like a fragment of normal life had returned. Not in full, and not for long, but football was (sort of) back. My brain – and the brains of other fans who’ve recounted similar experiences – was scrambling to remember any and all details of a day unlike all the others around it.

Not only did it stand out among the drudgery of lockdown – it stood out as different from any other QPR game in memory. Rather than meeting family and friends for a chat, my half-time entertainment consisted of texting other ‘R’ Gen contributors until we could figure out where everyone was sitting and create a bizarre semaphore exercise as we signalled to each other with waving and scarves. The notion of trying to navigate the cramped tunnels of the South Africa Road Stand whilst staying two metres apart felt like a bizarre video game, and it was surreal to hear the 2,000-person crowd flip between total, library-quality silence and a sound level that was louder than I’ve heard in stadiums five times as full. Every part of the experience was unique, and this is why it’s seared into our minds.

It’s a (hopefully) interesting bit of psychology trivia that we all have such vivid memories of the one or two games we attended in the winter of 2020. All we can hope going forward is that the balance flips again – once more, in the near or distant future, our everyday lives will become vibrant and interesting again, and football will return to being fun, routine, and (we can but dream) just that little bit boring.

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