Five thousand miles for a football club
I landed at Heathrow a good half an hour later than scheduled. Bouts of anxiety over missing my train from London Euston to Birmingham New Street had by then crept into my system. Having barely slept on this 17-hour flight I am frustratingly unsure if I am jet lagged, since, I had never been on a plane for more than three hours in my life.
For the entirety of the journey and from the time I set foot on foreign shores for the first time – Bhutan as a six-year-old does not count for us Indians, I, for not a moment, felt like I was travelling abroad. It is hard to convince yourself when you fly from Bangalore and change flights at Delhi. Thereafter which, you board Air India’s B787 Dreamliner with a bunch of Gujaratis, Punjabis and Bangladeshis and finally land in Heathrow where the airport ground-staff look familiarly brown-skinned.
At the airport, the immigration queue divided itself into EU and Non-EU travellers; the queue for latter, visibly longer than the former. Heathrow, surprisingly, felt like any other major airport in India. Long queues often regionally huddled, familiar dialects and brown-skin tones everywhere. Some even wear shades inside an airport at seven thirty in the evening. So, us.
Immigration unexpectedly does not take much time.
One straight question:
Officer: “What’s your purpose of the visit?”
Me: “Visiting my sister in Birmingham”
One twisted question:
Officer: “Are you sure, Is that the only thing?”
Me: “Yes, and I’ll be watching my team West Brom for the first time”
That was it. Nothing else said. One scorn on the officer’s face, one thump of the stamp on my passport and I was free to walk into a different country. Sniggering at the thought of the immigration officer’s reaction, I tell myself “What are the chances of him being a ‘Dingle'”. A ‘dingle’ is a moniker given to the fans of Wolverhampton Wanderers – our hated local rivals.
As luck would have it, I ended up missing my train to Birmingham. Infrequent trains from Heathrow to Green Park and then a superbly slow train from Green Park to Euston in combination contributed to an additional £33 that I had to shell out catch the next train. All along, I’d been looking for the cheapest deals and had found the train I had just missed for £8. That budget backpack trip I had envisioned hadn’t really started off cheap.
Yet, with travel, you recognize the amiability of strangers. Would you expect an elderly couple to run behind you, all the way from the National Rail exit to the platform, hoping that this unknown Indian dude would not miss his train? You wouldn’t. Would you expect them to offer to pay for your new ticket? You wouldn’t. I might have let go of a crisp £50 pound note with a bit of pain, but was I not smiling like an idiot when I did. The beauty of the world lies in its people, not in its monuments and landscapes. And, for strangers, a thank you is often what you can offer, and often that suffices.
Within touching distance of a fifteen-year dream
At the dinner table of my hosts in Birmingham – Ishita and Deepta – lay an elaborate platter for the occasion of my visit. Ishita, a friend from college and Deepta her husband had been insisting on me visiting, for over a year. The dinner was visibly a manifestation of their love for food and my presence.
At the West Bromwich Albion front, luck had just catapulted beyond my wildest dreams. This clumsy little blog of mine, with a solitary post to its credit, had got numerous shares on social media including one on the WBA India fan page, leaving me reeling with good wishes. One group member on the WBA India fan page, a Punjabi Brit by the name of Gurdial Singh, had been responsible for catapulting my luck north. Here’s is an excerpt of our conversation. Strangers, they are the best I tell you.
I had been in regular contact with Gurdial thereafter. And it is through her that I got to know that Drew Williams, from the Media team at West Brom, had wanted me to get in touch with him over email.
I had written to the club a couple of days before the post had gone viral to enquire about the possibilities of meeting Bob Taylor, Cyrill Regis, Bomber Brown and some of the current players in the team. Only to get a reply which read:
“There are a hundred requests coming in from all parts of the world every day and it’s difficult to look into the needs of everyone. We are sorry, but do enjoy your time at the Hawthorns!”
That was that. I wasn’t sad. I knew I had put in an unreasonable request. This was a Premier League club, and I was as obscure as a dot on the white and navy heat map.
Hence, when Drew had emailed me, I replied with the maximal hope of a stadium tour. But, moments later, I had received a text from Pranay from the Indian Supporters Club. He had already arranged for a stadium tour at the club with a man named Mathew Dainty. The transition from expectations to reality had been expedited even before I could grasp a breath.
Reflecting on the last few moments as a Satellite fan
The next morning, I sat on the bed, stared out of the window and reflected for a while:
Was this really true? Was I really in Birmingham? Was fifteen years of waiting, wishing and hoping, finally about to unfold in front of my eyes? It would be wrong to say I was excited. A deep sense of calm had overcome my mind. I knew I was within touching distance of a lifelong dream, yet I wanted that sense of longing to last as long as it could.
All my life, I had never thought I would find myself in such a situation. I had always sat and longed from a couch far away, building up frames and postcards in my mind, never really bothering to give the possibility of fulfilment a real thought. I never had the money, so I made do with the little things that made me happy – my self-painted wall, the matches on TV and the news on the internet.
But, I had this horrible hunch that once I set my sights on the Hawthorns, these little things would be an inferior memory. A feeling of accomplishment would overcome me and the sense of longing would slowly die and my entire childhood would wrap up in a moment of truth. Somewhere down within I wished I could hold it a little longer, for the sake of those fifteen years of turmoil and tears, for those moments of relief and ecstasy and for the very roller coaster ride that is so characteristic of a West Bromwich Albion fan.
Yet, I found myself sitting on a bed on Granville Street; a short train-ride away from the Hawthorns. This was not what I had envisioned, I was hoping things would be more spectacular. I was hoping I would be riddled with excitement, shaking from head to toe, but yet I was as calm as a daisy. All of a sudden, I had begun to hate the prospect of finally having to let go and live.
On the other hand, my hosts Deepta and Ishita along with their friends Paramita and Arun, look a lot more excited for me than I felt I was. Ishita is certain that I shall break down when I see the Hawthorns for the first time.
“Don’t cry too much okay?” she says giving me a hug.
I couldn’t make promises. I had no clue in what state of emotion, the first sight of the Hawthorns would leave me in.
Expelling Exclusivity: No more just a Satellite fan
“And that’ll be £3 only!” says the lady at the Moor Street Station ticket counter.
I had found my way to the station under hilarious circumstances. Standing right under the entrance I had asked a pretty pedestrian,
“Hello! Could you give me directions to the Moor Street Station, please?”.
The lady had given me a look that is hard to forget – a classic ‘are you kidding me’ stare.
Pointing to the sign board above my head she had said: “How about looking up for a change?”.
An embarrassing situation to say the least. Particularly because I was sure that she would have thought that I was trying to chat her up. But how could I tell her that it wasn’t her, and that, I had been possessed by the imminence of materializing a dream? Right then, I had wished I could tell every stranger around me. Hug them, squeeze their arms and whisper into their ears “I’m two steps away! This is really going to happen!”
The auto-announcer inside the train rings out “Welcome to the London Midland rail service. This train terminates at Stourbridge Junction. Calling at Birmingham Snow Hill, Jewellery Quarter, the Hawthorns…”.
Is it normal to experience the feeling of words/names ringing out louder? Or more frequently than usual in the context of the moment? In Behavioural Psychology, this act of recognition, prepped by moments and feelings is known as ‘Priming’. “The Hawthorns, the Hawthorns, the Hawthorns….” looped in my head, despite its imminence.
Disembarking at The Hawthorns railway station, a middle-aged man and his son are the only two people I spot in an otherwise desolate railway station. It seemed like they were in a bit of a hurry. But well, how was I to know that the paucity of time has so little to do with acts of kindness.
“Hold on, I’ll walk you there,” he says asking me to follow his lead.
In the entire walk from the station, to our right, was a wall. Hence, my eyes in a natural course of action had constantly drifted to my left in search for promise land. By the virtue of consistency, once we hit the street outside the station, I was still staring down the left side. The man, tapping me on my shoulder and pointing his finger to my right, declares:
“There you are my friend”.
I’m not sure if anyone’s ever suddenly jumped around and found themselves gaping at some fifteen years of aspirations. I can say, I have. My emotions, thus are an entangle between wanting to thank the man and not wanting to take my eyes of that stadium.
I had probably imagined my first sight of the Hawthorns a hundred times over the last week. I had imagined it to slowly show up on the horizon as I walked down the road that led to it. It was to be an emotional and tearful walk. One that would eventually end with me collapsing at the edge of the Astle gates, overcome with happiness and a sense of accomplishment. But, the suddenness with which my first sight eventuated blurred the scene I had painted in my head. Choking back tears, I eventually blurted out “This is my first time here! I’ve been a fan for fifteen years. This means a lot!”. His little son and he smiled back at me as if to indicate that it has been their pleasure to have been the harbingers of my joy.
West Bromwich Albion Football Club
I love saying it out loud and in its entirety. West Bromwich Albion Football Club. Such profound use of syllables and a prolonged expression of love.
There it was. Standing all tall and mighty in front of that obscure Indian fan. The boy had now stopped in his tracks to let tears roll down his eyes. He’s almost thirty and it is funny that he still calls himself a boy. He believes in the expression of emotion, particularly when it’s for football. To him, West Bromwich Albion surpasses social conventions. Boys don’t cry, men definitely don’t, but this man-boy couldn’t care less.
He finds himself crying with the same intensity as he did when he was fifteen. On that day, from an astonishing five thousand miles away, he had jumped with joy, sobbing uncontrollably in front of the telly. On that day, the very stadium he now faces fifteen years later, went berserk when twenty-five thousand others like him ran on to the pitch to celebrate the greatest relegation escape the Premier League had ever seen.
Gathering himself he walks past the Smethwick End gates. He’s mum with excitement at the thought of sitting himself in this famous old section of the stadium the very next day. He knows the time has come to call the curtains on his exclusive status as a satellite fanatic. It’s time for him to blend in amongst the vociferous and boisterous Hawthorns’ faithful.
Walking past the Tommy Glidden Media Entrance, he is reminded of the email sent to him by Drew Williams. Drew had asked him to be present at the entrance by 12 PM the next day. He wondered what plans the man had for him, but he wasn’t giving that too deep a thought. He was just happy to be in the vicinity of the stadium and in front of the Astle Gates. The same gates that had been his Facebook cover picture, his desktop wallpaper and a printed-out poster on his wall. But now he was touching it for real. Even hugging it from time to time. Who hugs a gate? He does. This was as authentic as it could get. He’d also been pinching himself every minute, rather, every second.
This one’s for the dreamers
Mathew Dainty, Head of Marketing at WBA, greets me at the reception. He introduces himself as a football man with an incredible pedigree of fanaticism. The man owns a non-league football club by the name Pagers Rangers FC. But, his football fanaticism is truly representative in the statistics he throws in my way. A game in over 400 stadiums already. And obviously more to come given he sets himself footballing missions every season. The latest of them is watching one home match at every football club in Wales. You realise only through travel in some point of your life that there exists the similar kind; albeit a different city, a different country, but there exists.
Mathew’s intentions are outright noble. He realizes I’ve been dying to get a view of the football pitch and the stands. So, keeping every other part of the stadium for later, he walks Pranay and me through the turnstile entrance at the East Stand.
I’ll admit I am a sucker for first sights. Nothing entices me more than the first view of the green from the stairs that lead to the terraces. I’ve had this obsession ever since my first game at a football stadium years ago. I think it was India vs Japan in a world cup qualifier. I can still vividly recollect the sight that greeted my eyes walking up the stairs of the YBK in Calcutta.
The number of virtual memories I have of the Hawthorns is not a joke. I cannot help but scan every corner of the stadium. My eyes try to match the frames I had built up in my mind over the years.” The stands are close to the pitch, much closer than they look on television” in my mind, I conclude.
“They look much bigger on the telly,” I tell Mathew, breaking my silence. Pranay and Mat were standing right next to me. They had been chatting away, but their words had barely reached my ears all this while.
Mathew walks me to the Smethwick end, and then up to the seat where I would be watching my beloved Baggies for the first time ever. “You’ve got yourself a good seat,” he says. “The atmosphere here is going to be electric”.
I wish I could explain to him how excited I was, but I was too deep in a trance to even try.
A sign board indicated that the pitch was out of bounds on account of the game tomorrow. Two grounds men worked away tirelessly to make it look even more mesmerizing. I thought it already was anyway. We walk around it instead; crossing the dugouts on our way, before entering the tunnel. It’ is easily noticeable that all these objects and areas, in reality, look much smaller and simpler than they do on television. Of them all, the sponsor’s board is the one that is strikingly disproportionate. A rectangular 1×2 feet piece of cardboard hung on the wall.
“The cameramen work their magic” chuckles Mathew.
I wasn’t really complaining. I had honestly never imagined I would come this far, let alone crib about scaling illusions.
The corridors of the stadium are carefully and tastefully adorned with photographs and memorabilia. The chronological layout is perfect to soak in some history. A lot of the history about which I find myself having no clue about is tastefully explained to me by Mathew.
Many decades of memorabilia later, we come to the section where Geoff Horsfield, Neil Clement, Jonathan Greening, Jason Koumas, Darren Moore, Paul Robinson, Zoltan Gera stare back at us from the walls in supremely athletic and ecstatic poses. Photographs from The Great Escape. How I remember every instance of that day is something that still baffles me today.
I walk back inside the ground before calling it a day at the Hawthorns. My gaze focuses on the hoarding that reads:
‘The Lord is my shepherd and I’ll not want; He makes me down to lie, In pastures green; He leadeth me, to the quiet waters by’.
I sing it out in my head like I had done for the last fifteen years. Then, looking at the Smethwick End, I wonder, what would it be like in there if West Brom scored first? How high would I jump while Boing Boinging?
Snap. The abysmal run we’ve been on takes over my thoughts. The pessimism that lugs along with being an Albion fan shine through. An entire day at the Hawthorns has done little to awake positivity. Walking out from those blue gates, I decided to rid my mind of stress and focus on what I expected from first ever game at the Hawthorns. I zero in that, all I desire is to re-live every emotion from the stands, the same ones I had experienced from my couch for so long. That would be – the unbridled joy of a goal, the despair of conceding and then a nail biting last twenty minutes to cling-on to a point.