England

Around the world for football: Away Days at West Brom – Sunderland vs WBA

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A humbling experience – the extraordinary super fans of West Brom

On the evening before the away trip to Sunderland, Gurdial text’s me a duly reminder. “Coaches leave at 9:30 AM from the East Stand Car Park, collect your tickets from David Holloway and have a coffee if required. It would be a good idea to pack something from Gregg’s for the journey. If you want I can pick up something for you.” By now I had adopted Gurdial as my Birmingham mother, and I guess she was quite happy to have me as her Calcutta son.

 The shrine in the morning

In the morning, outside the Smethwick End entrance, Gurdial introduces me to her travel companions as a fifteen-season old Baggie from India. I beam with pride as I shake hands, hoping to witness surprised faces, on them hearing about my fifteen-year tryst with the Albion.

But this isn’t India, there is Albion to your left, to your right, in front of you and behind you. Fifteen years is commonplace and no one really bats a serious eye with my introduction. It’s almost like I could hear an unknown voice whispering to me from somewhere “Alright Mr. 15 years, here’s Mrs.40, there’s Mr.25, behind you is Mr.70 and if you probably look around you’ll find Mr. 90. So, you better put your arse back on the seat”. So, I humbly take my seat in one of the coaches organised by Dave Holloway.

Gurdial next announces me to Alan Cleverly and John Homer, declaring with great enthusiasm that both these men are walking encyclopaedias on the Albion. To my delight, Alan promises me some rare video footage of yesteryears.

She then points to this really old man with a walking stick two seats behind me, “That’s doc, he goes for every game, he used to be the club doctor years ago.” I would later read in Adrian Chile’s book on Albion fans, about this man named Dr Roger Rimmer.

Dave Holloway, John Homer, Alan Cleverly and many others like them- young or old, healthy or ailing – make it for every game home and away and they’ve been doing it for decades. That fifteen years of fanaticism which I had grown to pride myself about was suddenly beginning to feel very insignificant.

With the lady who plans her vacations only during the off-season! Steve, David and Ash in the Background

My seat is next to a middle-aged lady named Julie Haycock. She’s been to India a couple of times, which always is an exciting topic for conversation starters given every foreigner jumps at the chance of talking about India to Indians. It is quite hilarious to witness her face when we get to the point where we are discussing Indian traffic rules or rather the lack of it. Julie on an average has missed one game a season since 1988. She arranges holidays during off season or during international breaks. She introduces me to some others in her group: Steven, David, Amanda, Nick and Ash.

Steve, David and Ash are on this mission to travel to all games this season in shorts in honour of our assistant manager David Kemp. They have a running Twitter/Facebook hashtag – #dresslikekemp and keep a regular tab on the ‘Kemperature’ before every game. I think they have a point there. I mean, I’m one of them- shorts and I are indispensable. However, as bad luck would have it, I’m wearing trousers today; only if I’d known earlier about the #dresslikekemp boys!

I quite grow fond of Steve. He emits vibrancy, has rambunctious tendencies and is remarkably different from his fellow travellers; Breaking into a song now and then about the Albion or just improvises on a situation at hand for everyone else to follow.

 

Julie’s picnic basket, The Colliery Tavern and ‘Dodge’ Dhanda

Dozing off for a bit amidst the chatter and the laughter, catching up on the many lost hours of sleep over the last two weeks, I’m woken up half way through to Sunderland by loud chants led by Steve.

“Alan Alan Alan Cleverly, ask for tea, gets coffee, Alan Cleverly”.

It appears, Alan Cleverly is doing the rounds with his refreshments.

Julie treats me to a cup. The tea doesn’t really overwhelm the palate, yet it’s just one of those things you enjoy regardless of taste when you are in great company. For accompaniments, Julie is the go-to-person without a shadow of a doubt. There seems to be no end to what she’s carrying and the quantity she’s carrying it in. Crisps, pork scratchings, jellies, cake and there’s enough of everything for everyone! The journey so far has had a good old picnic feel to it, a feeling from which I draw my first impressions of West Bromwich Albion being a proper family club.

About half an hour from the ground a voice on the radio rings out “A goal has gone in at the Molineux, it’s for Norwich.” The piece of news is met with instantaneous cheers and sadistic rounds of applause as the bus that had momentarily gone dull is now back buzzing again.

We arrive at the Stadium of light an hour and a half before kick-off. Like Newcastle is to the River Tyne, Sunderland is to the River Wear. The Stadium of light is bang next to the river and looks truly in its magnificence from a distance. Disembarking close to the river bank, Steve, Julie and I then make our way down some lovely fields of green to a pub down the road.

With Steve, Amanda and David outside the Colliery Tavern in Sunderland

The Colliery Tavern with its classic Victorian touch and aesthetically painted in Red and white reflects its allegiance to Sunderland AFC. This charming building in an otherwise empty street is flocked by predominantly Sunderland fans, but there are quite a few of our fans there as well. Most away fans, as I am told, have arrived on the coaches arranged by Dave Holloway and some of them on transport they arranged themselves. A sense of harmony paints the moment; fans from either team walk around the watering-hole without getting in each other’s way.

We’ve now moved outside with our beers to the lawns surrounding the pub to enjoy this bright and sunny day on the Wearside. Julie’s covered my beer again; I’ve basically not been allowed to pay for beer by West Brom fans so far on this trip and have rather resigned to my fate than protesting.

At a distance, I can spot ‘Dodge’ Dhanda. Dodge, a Smethwick End regular is of Indian origin like Gurdial and very much like her, he has been supporting the Albion for donkey years. His relatively aggressive presence on social forums helps me recognise him easily. I walk up to him for that imperative photo with the Smethwick End banner.

 

Dodge Dhanda and I with the Smethwick End Banner

Two frustrating weeks of no singing comes to an end

The Stadium of light is huge. The sixth biggest stadium in England boasts ultra-modern facilities and a seating capacity of 49,000 people; about twice the capacity at the Hawthorns. We, the away fans are housed in the upper section of the North Stand. On my trek to the top, I stop by to get another beer, this time in the premises of the North Stand. At the beer, counter are a hundred-boisterous bunch of Albion fans singing hoarsely.

The atmosphere is incredible which reverberates to even greater proportions given the small and compact area in which the beer counter is housed. For the eager onlooker, it’s hard not to be moved or to join in. For me it’s been a frustrating two weeks of not being able to voice a chant at all the other stadiums that I had been around and this opportunity to bounce to the tunes of the Hawthorns faithful, was one I wasn’t let pass.

I get these lovely nods of approval as I walk in with the Indian flag around my neck, People recognize me from my article on the WBA website, which had now become popular in our circles. It is a weird feeling that, to be embraced as a family by strangers; it seems like you have this massive bond with them, this extraordinary feeling of camaraderie, yet in reality, they are strangers and I do not even know their names.

For me, it’s been a frustrating two weeks of not being able to voice a chant at all the other stadiums that I had been around. This opportunity to bounce to the tunes of the Hawthorns faithful was one I wasn’t let pass. I get these lovely nods of approval as I walk in with the Indian flag around my neck, People recognize me from my article on the WBA website, which had now become popular in our circles. It is a weird feeling that, to be embraced as a family by strangers; it seems like you have this massive bond with them, this extraordinary feeling of camaraderie, yet in reality, they are strangers and I do not even know their names.

Incredible pre-match atmosphere at the Beer counter in the stadium

I take my seat next to Gurdial five minutes before kick-off. Most fans, by now, have made their way back to their seats from the beer counter, although with little signs of calm. As Alan Cleverly had told me earlier, we had just 1700 travelling fans which he felt was low compared to what we generally get. But those 1700 are in such great voice that it rather feels like 17,000.

The good thing about away games is that almost everyone joins in, whether they belong to the East End or the Brummie Road End at the Hawthorns, it doesn’t matter. It’s generally the fans at Smethwick End that sings at home games nowadays; I’ve heard and read about fascinating tales, of yore, narrating the extraordinary atmosphere the Hawthorns once generated with all parts of the ground echoing, but its modern football today. The atmosphere from the stands has lost its charm with the all seater safety guidelines.

At kick-off, the atmosphere, a dozen rows behind us, get louder and intense. Gurdial notices me looking back now and again, she asks “If you want to go up there and join them you can.” I was itching all along, though, in the depths of my heart, I did not want to leave the side of this magnanimous human being who had made everything possible in the first place. But that very attribute of her, for which I wanted to watch the game with her instead, shone brightly when she asked me to join the guys at the back.

She had realized, all I wanted to do was jump in amongst them and drown the voice of the person next to mine, channelling all the love I had held on to for fifteen years. How can I explain to you the feeling of singing to your heart’s content? It’s like an informal choir, an aggregation of strangers for a common theme, extremely noisy, sometimes witty, sometimes obscene and often all of that at the same time.

All I wanted to do was jump in amongst them and drown the voice of the person next to mine

At the Whistle

Sunderland clearly has the upper hand so far. Five minutes in, Jermain Defoe puts a chance wide. A few minutes later, Nacer Chadli forces a save from Jordan Pickford. But, so far West Brom have looked terrible apart from Chadli’s chance. The clock now reads 35 mins,  Matty Phillips puts in a delightful ball in the path of Chadli who bursts forward with incredible pace and posture, bends to his left and fires it into the bottom right corner. What a goal against the run of play!

The boy next to me gives me a massive hug. I’d been telling him my story, and as the ball bulged the back of the net, we screamed at each other like two teenage long lost brothers would, and then boom! A hug. I did not even know his name, nor had I met him before. Football is called the beautiful game for a reason.

Have you ever hugged the stranger next you with all your might when your team has scored? Of course.

It’s 1-0 to the Albion at half time, it could have been two if James McLean had done better to set up Rondon for a strike on goal. The mood at the beer counter is naturally buoyant. Our fans haven’t stopped singing for a second. By now I’m really under the impression that I am indeed ‘the lucky charm’. We had drawn away at Stoke last weekend and I hadn’t been in the stands.

The second half starts brighter and we quickly stamp our dominance over the game. Fletcher and Chadli miss opportunities to put us further ahead, but, we do not look like we will concede, either. By the eightieth minute, I’m biting my nails and so is everyone around me. As I had said before, historically, the difference between the points we could have gained but lost instead have often been in the last 20 minutes.

There is a steady outflow of home fans from the stadium as every minute passes. Clearly, some of them had had enough. Into the 83rd min, the substitute Patrick Van Aanholt volley’s a ball from close range. The ball smashes into the ground close to his boot and bounces rather awkwardly to just about nestle in the top corner. Sunderland has equalized.

The entire away section in the North Stand falls into a silence as we hear the echoes of the home fans celebrating. All of us had been fearing the worst and it’s not a good feeling when it does transpire. Now, we’ve got to cling on to a lower level of utility- a point and pray that Sunderland doesn’t plot a revival in the last seven minutes. It’s funny why we never think that we could turn around to get a goal to win the game instead.

But then why support a club that gives you the jitters that often? Is it really necessary to put ourselves through this emotional Brownian motion week in week out? Not that I would ever stop supporting them, but it is intriguing to know why “We know what we are”? Right then, in my head, I’m searching for answers.

I look around to see the faces of all those fifty seasons old and thirty seasons old stalwarts. I spot the six-year-olds with their dad’s and the disabled on the wheel chair. Then, I locate Dr Roger Rimmer seated at a distance. The man had travelled 200 miles on a bus and climbed a lengthy fleet of steps. I wondered if he could barely see much on the field given his age, the stadium’s layout and where we were seated. Yet he’s there and he’s been there on a day like today for the last seventy years and will be for every year till his health permits him no more or life draws a curtain on him. Epiphany.

The game finishes 1-1 and we make our way back to the bus and take our seats.

Back to Dave Holloway’s buses

What a feeling, what a night!

Julie hands me a tuna sandwich, which further accentuates my hunch that she has a food truck hidden somewhere inside her bag.

An initially enthusiastic post-match analysis on the bus slowly dies down into silence as most of us either doze off or got back to our digital devices. About half an hour away from the Hawthorns, the #dresslikekemp men are back to singing, this time’s the songs are about John Holmer and the driver. Nick throws in a line for me as well and then we all agree to sing “We’ve got Kanu..” for the camera. What an amazing bunch of travelling companions.

Our coach pulls up outside the Smethwick End at ten in the night. People disembarking, wait outside to wish each other and wave goodbyes. For them, it’s just another weekend doing the usual, but for me, it’s a dreadful feeling to come to terms with- my next away game; Liverpool vs West Brom back in Bangalore in front of the telly. To drown my sorrows, I decide it’s time for a couple of beers at Broad Street.

A great away day experience calls for a group photo!

It’s one in the morning; I’m on my way back home through the Mailbox and it’s pretty cold. With all those beers and the pride of wearing a West Brom shirt, wearing my jacket is no longer an option. As I glide down the escalator, I notice a group of young guys who look to be of Indian Origin nudging each other in excitement while pointing at me. At the end of my escalator ride, they greet me like they’ve known me for years. More Albion fans.

We’ve all had a few beers already, which of course is the perfect mood to break into a “Robson-Kanu” chant. Amidst our raucous steps towards home, I take the opportunity to introduce myself; One of them immediately exclaim, “Oh so you are the guy on the website!! This is insane mate, we got to take a photo together”. That right there was my 30 seconds of fame. As I shake hands and walk on in my intended direction, in the background I can hear their trailing voices “…We’re going to Wembley, we’ve got Robson-Kanu”.

What a feeling, what a night.

 

 

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