One evening the other week, I was on a train from Nottingham to Derby. Knowing they keep the ticket barriers down in the evenings, I decided to risk it. I boarded the train without a ticket. Providing there wasn’t a conductor on board, I should be able to sneak back up to the other end of the A52 £4.90 better off. I sat down and settled into my seat. The train whurrs into motion, and I see the station go by. I look down the carriage.
There’s a conductor on board.
I calm myself. The ball is in his court, to analogise the wrong sport for this blog. If he’s going to ask me anything, he has to notice me, and notice he hasn’t asked already seem my ticket. I put my headphones in, head down, take up as little space as possible. Low profile. Just scroll Twitter until the danger has passed. All I have to do to save myself from the hefty £20 fine is to not draw attention to myself. He’s heading towards me. The critical moment is coming. I keep scrolling, pretending to be in my own little world. And then I read a tweet. Dylan Hartley has pulled out of the weekend’s game due to illness. I cheered out loud.
I hate Dylan Hartley. I hate him with a passion. My head is stuffed with tens of thousands of current and former rugby players, each with their own mini-profile up there (Mike Poole, former semi-pro cage fighter, played 13 games on the wing for the Dragons and 1 for the Scarlets. I know that off the top of my head. And yet I can’t spell ‘necessary’ without autocorrect), and of them all, Dylan Hartley is the one I hate the most. I hate everything about him. I hate his face. It looks like somebody set a tiny, low-res picture of Chris Ashton as their desktop background and clicked ‘Stretch’. I hate his voice, a Kiwi accent trained to slide into RP like Mathieu Bastareaud into a corset. Just hearing it is enough to make me consider what I’d call a “double van Gough”. I even hate his name. A lad called Dylan once beat me up in school because I wasn’t sure which football team I supported*, and Hartley’s is the most expensive jam on the market. I hate Dylan Hartley to such a degree just knowing he had a cold made me so happy I had to exclaim out loud. The only other tweet that could make me as excited would be one saying Claudia Winkleman has split from her husband and is looking for a mid-20s, weedy, hairy man who still sleeps with a cuddly toy in his bed to replace him.
But why? I wouldn’t cheer if anybody who had ever given me genuine reason to ‘hate’ them caught a cold. If Dylan or any of the other kids who beat me up when I was young were ill, my only reaction would be to Google whether or not you can catch a cold from being punched. The girl in pre-school who stole my VHS copy of A Bug’s Life got chicken pox a few weeks later, and if anything, it hurt more knowing she probably watched it at least three times whilst tucked up in bed. Mark Chapman killed John Lennon, but if he fell ill, my main reaction would be annoyance that it reduces the chances of him running into Morrissey in the street. In fact, in true Lennon style, I don’t really hate anyone I’ve ever met. Not in a hippyish, ‘peace and love’ type way, either. Just because it’s pointless to hold such a strong opinion about something that brings you no joy. So why did I take such glee in the thought of Dylan Hartley scrambling for a Lemsip? Because that does bring me joy. Because, to me, Dylan Hartley is not a real person.
I love rugby because it allows me to build up tens of thousands of little player profiles (Martin Rodriguez, capped by Argentina in every backline position between 2009 and 2012. His name was actually Rodriguez-Gurruchaga, but he just referred to himself as Rodriguez, though I never got to the bottom of why, and still sometimes wake up in the night wondering). A small collection of traits, skills, and strengths I determined myself. I don’t have little profiles for people I know. I get to see all sides of them. I come to view them as more than two-dimensional characters. With rugby players, I don’t, and I don’t want to. At the end of the day, professional sport is entertainment. It’s thrilling because it’s packaged up as a never-ending narrative. It’s a soap opera with weekly action set-pieces. I choose to buy into the character archetypes it throws up. That’s why I hate Dylan Hartley: Because a soap opera with nobody to hate is boring.
I don’t hate the boy who went to Roturora High School before moving to West Sussex aged 16. I don’t hate Thea Hartley’s dad, I don’t hate Jo Hartley’s husband. That man’s name is Dylan Hartley, but I don’t know who that man is. I don’t care to find out. What I do care about, is the pantomime villain who takes to a field once a week. The cackling, elbowing dirtbag who captains the scallywags of England and Northampton each week. I hate that Dylan Hartley. I would never wish anything bad on Hartley when he’s not on the field, other than the red card it would take to get him off it. But on it? Hartley is Lex Luthor. He’s the Wicked Queen. He’s the figure I want to see suffer. People hate Darth Vader, but that doesn’t mean they despise James Earl Jones.
The problem is, and it’s easy for people to lose track of this when you pop on Twitter, or sit down to write an article about a player of whom you aren’t a fan, is that these stars aren’t choosing to play a part. The character names in the script are their own. When Dylan Hartley does a nasty tackle on a player I like, I don’t say “That was a disagreeable tackle, but let’s not jump to any conclusions about the man’s character”. I say “I hate Dylan Hartley, he’s a twat”. It’s infinitely more satisfying. Investing in a sports team is a kind of emotional lottery, and you want to get all you can out. If I didn’t get to pretend to experience hate over that weekly eighty minutes, I’d probably feel short-changed.
I can only imagine how hard it is for a professional player not to take this personally. After all, none of them asked for this. Just because they happened to be really good at the thing they love, they’re plunged into the heart of this ridiculous entertainment vehicle. They become an emotional puppet for thousands of people. A commodity for the media to abuse, for fans to rally for or against. Frankly, it’s amazing how many players take it in their stride. Fan-induced breakdowns, the kind suffered by the likes of Alex Cuthbert (Hartpury College student picked up by Wales 7s, and subsequently Cardiff Blues. Enjoys horse riding in his spare time, which is an incredible sight, considering he looks like one himself), should be far more frequent than they are. Being judged publicaly for something that is only a reflection of a sliver of their soul hurts. Every week brings a new set of victims. And for the players, every week brings a new set of tormentors. It must be such a relief when Champions Cup time rolls around and half of the opposition fans only speak French.
I get the train between Nottingham and Derby at least once a week, and so many of them are spent cycling through the player profiles lodged in my head (Marcos Paixao, Brazillian wing/fullback who took up rugby after playing touch on the beach with his brother’s mate. Eighteen months later, he and his brother were in the Brazil 7s side for the Olympic Games). On my most recent journey, I decided to try to follow up my Hartley-illness-ticket escapade. I asked myself: How many of them do I hate? Hundreds of names came to mind. Half of them Australians who scored a last-minute winner against Wales. And yet, at the same time, I don’t hate any of them. I don’t hate them because I don’t have any reason to, and even if I did, I would have no right. So, on the off-chance Dylan Hartley does ever read this, I don’t hate you. And, if you are the professional player, none of the fans really hate you. You’re just a villain on their favourite soap opera, they hate you because they love what you represent. And if you’re a fan, that isn’t wrong. You’re buying into the full emotional potential of that same thing you, we, love. The ‘hate’ we experience in professional sport isn’t the same as the destructive hate we encounter in the outside world. I hate Dylan Hartley in the same way I love beans on toast. Yes, there’s feeling there, but it’s artificial. I’m not buying my breakfast a gift for Christmas, just as I’m not putting Hartley down for every spam newsletter I can find.
Maybe it’s not for the players to say, not me, and maybe I’m just preaching to make myself feel better about saying mean things. And it’s inevitable that, when he recovered from his little bug, I’ll say it again. I hate Dylan Hartley. But I don’t really hate anyone the moment they leave the pitch. Actions on the pitch do not define who a player is. Being about as effective on the pitch as his app is off it does not make James Haskell a twat; being a twat does. But the moment they leave the pitch, they become humans, and it’s just not worth hating any other humans. I hate the players playing the game, but I don’t hate the players and I don’t hate the game.
Except Callum Clarke. Callum Clarke is a cunt.
*Bonus genuine story from when I was in Year 8:
I stood up for another small kid who he was picking on, as I could tell Dylan (Which is his real name, but he’s in prison now so I’m safe just in case he does read this) was in the mood to hit someone. If my rugby career taught me anything, it’s that I’m very good at getting hit by people bigger than me. After a brief back and forth, he changed the conversation.
“Who do you support?”, he asked.
“Football or rugby?” I replied.
“Then no one”
He took this as the final straw and decided to beat me to a pulp.