This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
For a decade, Nick Hay* lived the life of a football casual, traveling the Netherlands to watch his team – and getting involved in a fair few scraps along the way. In this article, Nick explains how he believes he became a better person thanks to his time as a hooligan.
It must have been a day during that Indian summer of the year 2000. For the first time in my life I attended a football match without parental supervision. Night was still falling when, next to me, a brick landed right on the forehead of a huge man. A drop of blood stuck to his left nostril. The smack of that block on his forehead signalled the start of a new phase in my life, one that would last for 10 years. As well as the inevitable bruises, punches and lock-ups, it also gave me a new goal in life. That decade as a hooligan allowed me to grow into somebody that I wouldn't want to change for anything – it made me a better person.
My legs were shaking as, for the first time, I climbed towards 'my stand', full of reckless teenagers and bulky men. I found it extremely frightening, but at the same time I was fascinated. After the first goal, a massive rush began towards the fences that separated my stand from the opposition supporters. Paralysed by fear, the crowd literally pushed me in the direction of the rival fans. The fences held firm, although it didn't seem like that the time. Afterwards, I realised that this was a standard ritual, the so-called 'attack on the away team's firm'. After each goal we'd climb the fences, but every time they'd resist.
Through the years I learned the rules and habits of our stand. I got to know the people, with their unwritten laws and codes of conduct. I grew up with them and, slowly, I achieved my very own spot. As a snotty kid in the group it took years for me to get to my own step on this social ladder. Literally: I'd started on the lowest end of the stand and climbed up, bit by bit, every season. The guys who had once been examples now became friends, though I didn't lose my respect for them. For 10 years I worked hard to earn my place, simply by being there, and always being there. We shared birthday parties, weddings, funerals, fights and countless games. By gaining respect you could slowly move on, but it wasn't something that came in a few weeks – that process took years.
* * *
Friday night in a dusky and godforsaken rural town. It's the kind of place you'd never visit if it wasn't for football, which sentenced us to this trip at least once a year. And there we were, in an almost abandoned alley at nightfall, dancing on the front foot, raising fists in front of our faces, but heavily outnumbered; we got beaten up, badly. Where every normal person was now watching reality TV we simply had to defend our honour, even if we got punched out in the process. It was all part of the game. Extremely happy, we would take the train back with only some swollen lips and a few black eyes. A whipping doesn't kill you: you just get rid of the dust, stand up, and keep going. When I look back on the past 10 years, I see that I learned the most from those moments of adversity. I learned about myself, about our group, and about life. These moments made me the person I am today.
In times of adversity I push harder, since I just don't know any better. We all live together in a giant, perfect world that sometimes makes us forget how to deal with adversity. We coddle ourselves to death. It creates spineless lemmings. Everything is available and within your grasp. We don't need to fight for anything anymore. In my opinion, you should fall down hard a few times to shape your character. Can you imagine what it means if you get the chance every month to fall down really badly? It makes you.
On one deathly boring Tuesday night, I called a hooligan from another club. I knew him from national team games. It was a friendly conversation and, between the jokes, we set up a fight for the next occasion our two teams met. Numbers, location, time – we thought about everything, as usual. One month earlier we'd fought together against our foreign colleagues. That fight was set up too – that was simply the way it worked. Of course I realised this wasn't normal, but was it really that insane?
As a society, we can really go crazy about the phenomenon called hooliganism. I dare to ask myself if what I do is really normal. It is savage and outside the box, but then is it all that perfect inside the box? The selective indignation about these 'so-called football fans' can truly frustrate me. No, it isn't normal to go and hit people at a football game, but it happens to those who come for that same reason and with an (almost) strict code of conduct: when you're down, you're down.
Chris Henderson, the former leader of the renowned Chelsea Headhunters, wrote in his book about the life of former hooligans: "These old fans have the unmistakable aura of being able to achieve against the odds." I can only conclude that he was right. There is an enormous difference between the boy who got into the firm in 2000 and the man who stepped out 10 years later. I am definitely another person now.
I've never been a true go-getter. More than that, when things got tough I used to leave. Study, work and friends were always complete chaos for me. But when I stepped out of the world of hooliganism, I had a motto in life: What has to be done, has to be done. Something might not seem like much fun – in fact, it may seem tough or even impossible – but often, trying or simply experiencing that thing is enough to get it done for yourself.
Today, business is going smoothly. Customers find their way to me and I am not afraid to start things that have never been done before. Chris Henderson described it as follows: "Taking risks is a good quality for running a business." Nowadays I push on, whereas before I probably would have dropped out. Those 10 years showed me one thing: what has to be done, has to be done.
You wouldn't recognise me on the street. In fact, I reckon I would be the last person you'd suspect. I'm someone who still has respect and stands up on the train. 'We' live according to other rules, but I refuse to feel guilty about it, the way Joe Public talk about it on Monday morning at the coffee machine. Is this really what we want to worry about? The world is on fire and you put this on the front page of the newspaper? The way we live might be a bit savage and pretty far outside the box, but it made me who I am now: someone with pride, respect and loyalty.
*Nick Hay is pseudonym. His real name is known by VICE Sports.