The Psychology of Football Nostalgia
We’ve all witnessed the rise of retro in football over the past few years.
Whether it be a match-worn shirt or a replica retro piece, the proliferation of vintage charity shop finds or the effect of historical kits on the designs of new ones, there is no denying the influence nostalgia is having on the football apparel we’re wearing right now.
The beautifully minimalist, commemorative FA Cup shirt released by Chelsea recently sold out within 24 hours and when @The_Kitsman recently polled his Twitter followers on their shirt purchasing rationale, when it wasn't the team they support, the results were resounding: of the 720 votes, 56% claimed ‘nostalgic and retro’ as their main motivation.
But what is it about the psychology of the past that keeps us so interested in the designs and badges of club history?
Colin French from the irreverent Half and Half Scarves podcast suggests that the shirts evoke memories we want to feel again “I do not support Manchester United but the kits, that they achieved those incredible things in, transcend the basic idea of a football kit and to me represent incredible victory on the biggest stage of them all.”
“When I see them I don’t just see a shirt, shorts and socks, I see those players winning the treble or the many, many league titles that they conquered, as I sat wide eyed witnessing it. I don’t even support that club but my history with the game ties me emotionally to them and the shirts that they wore"
Is the retro shirt fulfilling our need to remember the past?
According to the dictionary definition nostalgia (noun) is ‘a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past’, however the word’s origin relates to the Greek for ‘homecoming’ and ‘pain’.
Originally, back in the 1600s, nostalgia was considered to be a debilitating, and possibly even fatal, mental disorder which was suggested to cause fever, loss of appetite, brain inflammation and even heart failure!
At the time it was specifically treated in relation to soldiers at war, some of whom were probably experiencing severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One Russian General buried his troops alive as a lesson to others that nostalgia was to be stamped out if they were to succeed on the battlefield!
The medicalised view of the term appeared to change during the 1800s and it took on the more ruminating, bittersweet harking back that we are more familiar with today.
But what is it about a romanticised version of football past that encourages our love of the retro replicas and vintage shirts?
“As a fan, I don’t just support my club in the moment of now, I have been part of it’s history, just as it has been a part of mine. I grew up with football; it defined my weekends as it still does today. Retro shirts from throughout my childhood activate a sense of happiness in me because I witnessed heroic players wearing them and I watched heroic teams playing in them,” says Colin
“Of course, age must play a large part in nostalgia. As I grow older, accumulate responsibility and the world around me changes, I have a strong hankering for the things of my youth….A Chelsea shirt from the 96/97 season will always remind me of one of the greatest days that I have ever experienced as a football fan, meaning I want to own it even now “
And psychologists would agree that we are most likely to remember with fondness, the football of our youth.
Cognitive science tells us that after the age of 30 we begin to re-model the memories of our formative years, to look back on them with more affection than they, perhaps, deserve. It serves our mental health better to recall the good times rather than the bad, so this ability to bring out the proverbial ‘rose-coloured spectacles’ serves us well.
A phenomena known as the ‘reminiscence bump’ was indicated by a 1980s study, by Rubin & his colleagues, of what psychologists call ‘autobiographical memory’ - the memories of our life. Previous memory studies had shown that the farther away an event was for young student participants, the less likely it was to be remembered, however when the same test was conducted on older participants the findings revealed something very unusual: Yes they remembered things from their recent past the best but looking at all the data there was clearly also an increased recall for events right around their 20s!
A big ‘bump’ in the data suggested a significant recall of memories from young adulthood; a result that has been seen many times over in subsequent studies. It’s like we have some ‘flagship’ memories that our brains hold on to.
Colin Webster, the brains behind the fantastic football strategy board game Counter Attack, concurs that our memories of those formative years massively influence the shirts we want to own now “we hold a (sometimes mistaken) belief that times were better back in the day and the retro craze is in part driven by the memories we hold of the football teams and great moments we grew up with”
In this way the iconic, red, round-necked, England away shirt of 1966 is inextricably linked to someone's memories that historical victory over West Germany. According to the experts if you witnessed that event in your youth, your brain's storage of such victorious times, and in particular your amygdala's role in it's recall, will influence your love for the shirt’s design. Similarly a current love of Arsenal's 'bruised banana' could well be traced back to a wistful longing for years gone by at Highbury.
Some organisations have harnessed the power of nostalgia to improve mental well-being in their communities. The Award winning Sporting Memories Foundation welcome isolated older people to meet once a week too share their memories and shared love of sport in order to combat loneliness, depression and dementia.
Following on from their successful Memories of 66 Project, The National Football Museum works in conjunction with the foundation to run free Sporting Memories Groups, fortnightly, to support the wellbeing of older people.
And Football Memories groups, organised by Alzheimer Scotland, also use the memories of football to improve the lives of Alzheimer sufferers, with The Scottish Football Museum marking their 10 year involvement in the project last year.
“I drive here with this sad person with dementia and I take home my husband.”
When the recollection isn’t pathological or linked to grief, much of the research suggests that nostalgic thoughts can really improve our mental state. Dr Clay Routledge says that that, after reminiscence, people rated significantly higher on self-esteem measures and indicated that life had more meaning, whilst Cheung and her colleagues (2013) found participants to be more generous and optimistic.
Professor Constantine Sedikides of Southampton University has studied the psychological benefits of reminiscence extensively over the years, concluding that our sentimental longing for the past, often triggered by feelings of negativity about the here and now, is a defence mechanism which helps us counter-act feelings of meaninglessness, and even depression, when the going is getting tough.
He and his colleagues have also discovered that when in that state of remembering we are more likely to reach out to strangers and be altruistic, so it appears that looking back on football’s past will actually strengthen our bonds with others.
This may explain why our Twitter feed @OSFshop is filled with retro football chat and a belongingness that transcends football allegiances, individual circumstances and political views.
Sedikides suggests that this kind of reminiscent interaction can help to boost self-esteem, lift mood and improve our feelings of connectedness, both with others and with our past.
And so it may be worth remembering, as you browse www.classicshirts.com and the guilt starts to creep, that this hankering for all things retro is actually good for your soul.
Nostalgia connects us with the past and our fellow humans. It helps our mental health to reminisce about those times on the terraces when we were first introduced to the beautiful game, the shirts worn, the badges kissed, the pain and the glory.
Colin French sums it up perfectly “Nostalgia is history. History is the glue to relationships. History is why I have a passion for retro football items.”
Cheung, W. Y., Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Hepper, E. G., Arndt, J., Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M. (2013). Back to the future: Nostalgia increases optimism. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1484-1496.
Gluck, J., & Bluck, S. (2007). Looking back across the life span: A life story account of the reminiscence bump. Memory and Cognition, 35, 1928-1939.
Rubin DC, Wetzler SE, Nebes RD. Autobiographical memory across the adult lifespan. In: Rubin DC, editor. Autobiographical memory. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press; 1986. pp. 202–221. [Google Scholar]