If sports are the modern opiate, then I share my drug of choice with much of the rest of the world: soccer. Therefore, during a semester abroad, I had to make the pilgrimage to London to see my club: Charlton Athletic.
The problem was Charlton was not playing at home. Instead, I was headed down to “The Den,” the home of London-neighbors and old rivals Millwall Football Club.
Now, most American perceptions of English “football” and its supporters come from the fanaticism seen in books like “Fever Pitch” or the brutal violence of films like “Green Street Hooligans.” While the violence is nothing compared to the hooligan heyday of the 1980s, 1980s reputations die hard.
Millwall has a 1980s reputation.
If the smokestack next to the stadium was not indication enough, Millwall is a blue-collar club founded in an old dock-workers district. Their hooligans, “the Bushwackers,” are still infamous — they are the ones punching up Elijah Wood in “Green Street Hooligans.”
As I approached The Den, London’s finest evidently had not forgotten the ‘80s either. A battalion of police ready for a riot — helmets, shields, horses and vans — lined the roadway, hours before the match.
Now, I am a proud Charlton man, but once the 18,000-plus Millwall faithful started roaring their legendary chant “No one likes us. We don’t care,” I was thankful I had not worn my team colors. Even more so, when halfway through the match, the man in front of me leaned over to his young son, pointed up into another section, and said, “Look at that guy get done!” I followed his finger up to find a Charlton fan getting absolutely pummeled by a Millwall supporter. Petrified, I stared ahead, and my friend leaned over and said, “So glad you didn’t wear that jersey.”
The match itself could not channel the fervor into goals, however, ending 0-0. A humdrum game did nothing to kill the atmosphere though, which is not to say both sides did not live and die with every touch of the ball. Exactly the opposite, 90 minutes of tension only served to make both sides discontent.
The Charlton supporters, 2,000 quarantined at one end of the pitch, barricaded in by police until Millwall’s fans had left as to avoid a full-fledged riot, kept singing long after the final whistle, Their chanting crescendoed in a flare arching down onto the field, instigating a countering volley of projectiles — seats, rocks — from the Millwall die hards. The police barricade held firm and so the hundreds of remaining supporters were forced out into the streets to await the release of the Charlton section.
A new line of police shields kept sidesdivided outside, pushing Millwall back toward the London Underground station. They did this amidst a hail of bottles and a chant to the tune of “London Bridge,” “broken bottle are our friends, are our friends, they kill coppers.”
My shaky nerves completely shattered when the line of shields charged. My friend and I sprinted pell mell toward the Underground.
Now, to put this in perspective, Millwall and Charlton are not in the Premier League. They are not even the best teams in England’s second-tier. This was a middle-of-the- league clash between two mediocre clubs.
Yes, the violence was repulsive; exhilarating but nonetheless asinine. However, the father and son in front of me, the laughs of friends who had sat next to each other for 30 years, and the general passion on display at The Den confirmed something about sports for me: Front runners are the faint of heart.
The bonds forged in a nil-nil draw or a 2-11 season are the worthwhile ones. Victory is to be savored, but loyalty and camaraderie are to be treasured.
My experience taught me — aside from never wear opposing colors at Millwall — that I need to be a better Vandal. Because the people I share that bond with, win but probably lose, are my classmates and friends. Even if they are just as pessimistic about next year’s football season.
Dylan Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org