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thefootytraveller

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A fifty-two square feet banner unfurled at the West Block in the Kanteerava Stadium reads “The road is long, but the the belief is everything. Stand up for Indian football”- West Block Blues.”

Rewind four years from today: large sized banners were of a mental incapacity; chanting an unimaginative occasional uproar in close calls; and Bangalore, a city of relative footballing insignificance. But, tonight’s fifty-two square foot banner represents quite the contrast, a signification of a remarkable turnaround in supporter behaviour. A testament to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels.

I’ve often wondered why we are what we are. What’s all this for? The answer to this conundrum I shall stumble upon one day. But till then my quest in search for the meaning of fandom will continue far and wide. In this episode of my uncharted journey, I’m a stone’s throw from the milieu, in a city I’ve called my home for the last six years. I’m seated at the West Block in the Kanteerava Stadium, amongst the fans that call themselves the West Block Blues. This isn’t a Bengaluru FC game, but a crucial AFC Cup Qualifier -India vs Kirgizstan. But, that barely changes a thing, they do what they’ve got to do, they do what they want to do- Stand up for Indian football.

One, United.

I have a date for the day – Meghana Irde, a Liverpool fan I met last year at a pub in Bangalore. For her and for many during her time, Gerard was to Liverpool like Beckham was to Manchester United, in terms of good looks that is. Fast forward fifteen years, Meg is an active member of the Bangalore Kop (Official LFC fan club in Bangalore) and Gerard a fond memory of how Liverpool came about for her; aesthetic reasons are long a bygone.

She also happens to be one of the many women visiting the Kanteerava for the game today. For her, today’s visit to the football is not a one-off, but rather a routine trip to the West Block of Bengaluru FC- a club she has pledged her allegiance to locally. She exhibits the sort of dualism that is uncommon amongst football fans in India-simultaneous European and local fanaticism. A situation made even rarer by her gender. Women like Meg are an exemplar of why football in Bengaluru has set standards for the country to follow. Today, however, my focus is solely on the fans of the nation as a whole and not the fans of Bengaluru FC. I’ll keep that for another day.

Matchday Makeup!

I’m at the Kanteerava by five o clock, almost three hours ahead of kickoff. Arriving early comes with its perks: one, it gives me time to sort my tickets which I always tend to leave till the last minute; two, an opportunity to get some quality quotes and opinions from the fans; and three, an assured parking spot.

Fans have come in from different parts of the country. Groups from Kerala Blasters, Chennaiyan FC, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan walk side by side sporting the colours of the clubs they represent. There’s even the odd fan from Mumbai and Gujarat.

The East Bengal scarf hangs around my neck. It’s the club I call my own, and for once it’s okay to don the colours of a rival team at the home ground of Bengaluru FC. After all, it’s the nation that we all chant for today, irrespective of club colours and regional allegiances.

Yet, tonight’s success as fans hangs in the balance. The onus is on the host city and the local team to make the numbers, for, in a country as large as India, travel is a luxury of both time and money. At club games, the away support is inversely proportionate to the distance from home, unless it’s the diaspora that’s left home for a different city. Over the years, the city of Bengaluru has never disappointed, it’s fans, like the ones of the Ultras of East Bengal, has been a fresh breath of air for Indian football, capable of bringing the house down with the voices of just a couple of hundred. Being a Tuesday, the stadium isn’t expected to fill to its brim, but no less is expected of this vociferous bunch of Bangaloreans that already walk the premises of the Kanteerava three hours before kick-off.

I’ve been getting the regular glance and the occasional jeer from the locals as I make my way around the stadium compound in my East Bengal scarf documenting instances which I can use on my blog. The scarf draws attention, but also makes it easier to strike a conversation.

One, United. East Bengal FC, Chennaiyin FC and Benguluru FC fans in the same frame.

The West Block Blues on national duty

Waseem spots me doing the rounds and lets off a sarcastic hello pointing at my scarf. He’s a known face in the footballing circles, often appearing in videos made on Bengaluru FC.  With him is Vijay.  The two of them lead the chants from the stands and are much of the similar mould as the capos of East Bengal: gregarious, imposing and vocal. The West Block Blues are about fifty in strength at the core, with many hundred others who join during match days, but these fifty are the ones instrumental in planning every detail of the aural and visual artistry on display. One of theirs, clad in a traditional white Indian attire (kurta-pajamas), has just arrived from Chennai and has made his way straight to the ground. His pals greet him with the lines adapted from a nationalistic song- “Mere desh ki dharti” (the soil of my country). Clearly, the mood has been set. The Indian national team has just touched 100 in the FIFA rankings for the first time in 24 years, the spirit of the fans is understandably in alignment.

Waseem, Vijay and I are surrounded by a bunch of Bengaluru FC fans while we engage in a dialogue. The ensuing debate is legitimate: Who has the better set of fans, East Bengal or Bengaluru FC? Who’s are the loudest? They want my honest answer.

The wrong kind of question to be asking someone wearing an East Bengal scarf; the answer is very well obvious. However, Vijay does have a point about the Kanteerava being acoustically inferior compared to the Barasat Stadium (the home of East Bengal). The circular construct, with a running track around the playing surface, makes it difficult for sound to reverberate.

Wish we still had our old stadium. This one’s not even our stadium, we need to move. If they say get out, we have to get out.” laments Vijay initially referring to the Bangalore Football stadium which had been their home in the formative years of the club.

Yet, this isn’t the first time I’m coming here to watch a match, the last time I was here, I was cheering for my adopted city, hoping they would foil any chances our much-hated local rivals, Mohun Bagan, had of winning the league. But that, unfortunately, wasn’t to be. Though I’ll admit I walked away captivated. Captivated by the rambunctious vibes emitted by those seated in the West Block.

Eager onlookers at the West Block of the Kanteerva Stadium

As a journalist, it is pertinent that I remain unbiased, and for that very reason, I even-handedly hold the fans of both East Bengal and Bengaluru FC in the same bright light. While arguments over superiority will continue whether I deliver a verdict or not, in my eyes both sets of fans are serving the same larger purpose- bringing an atmosphere to the stands that one possibly could never have imagined in Indian football. And for that, I have immense respect.

It’s understandable why some of these BFC fans echo melancholy over the fact that East Bengal and Bengaluru FC would be playing in different leagues from the next season.

We might hate you guys, but we respect your passion at the end of the day,” says Waseem.

You know, the thing that’ll we’ll miss the most in the ISL is the rivalry with East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. We do not want to get into a rivalry with the Kerala Blasters or Pune City. What the fuck will we fight about, Kayani Biscuits?” says another guy. He happens to be married to a Bengali, but clearly, in terms of regional loyalties, he’s managed to steer clear of any influence a domineering Bengali wife is known to exert.

Apparently, a joke is already in the market much before I had written about it. A section of the BFC fans notoriously breaks into the chant “Sachin! Sachin!” as the group of Kerala Blasters fans pass them.

One country, two parallel top-tier leagues, rivals pulled apart by an administrative circus. Who’s winning? I ask again.

Every cloud though has a silver lining. At least, that seems to be the general consensus amongst the BFC fans. They feel the ISL is a step forward for them in the right direction, a move that is imperative for improving the business side of things.

One must recognize that BFC is a club that is just four years old, and to have achieved what they have in this short time span may be remarkable, but culturally and historically they aren’t endowed with the numbers like their rivals from Bengal.

Waseem puts this across eloquently:

Because we’ve learnt it the hard way, we’ve worked for it, for us and I’ll be unbiased, we have the best fans, but we need to achieve something called quantity, right? We need to achieve the numbers, we need to fill the stadium, the ISL hopefully will help us fill it. We are loud as eff, but we also need an aesthetic spectacle

Only time will tell if the ISL is the right move, but one thing’s for sure, Waseem and his group will never bore.

I’ll Crack my voice, I would like you to follow – The Capo’s of West Block Blues

At the moment, Waseem sports a Bengaluru FC jersey. He’s promised his friends that he’ll be changing into the India strip shortly despite the discomfort of having to wear a size smaller.

Vijay gives him some stick for complaining, “At least you have a jersey, where the eff do people buy this from? They don’t even sell the damn national team jersey in the store

Vijay sports a blue formal shirt, he says that’s the only blue he could fish out from his wardrobe apart from the Bengaluru FC jersey he owns a piece of clothing he’s not interested in wearing today. “It’s a national team game, that’s how it is for me man,” he responds dismissing any chances of pulling on the BFC jersey.

Sivan accompanies me to the ticket counter; Additional tickets to the previously sold out allocation for the West Block have just been released and had it not been for his timely intervention, I would have had to shell out twice the marked price to a tout for a ticket.

I support Man United but nowadays it’s more Bengaluru FC than United.” he says on our way back from the ticket counter.

Wow! I’ve never heard of that before: falling out of love as a Satellite fan, and falling in love with the local team!” I exclaim. “Not really,” he says, “I still do watch United, but one thing I maintain is that your home club should come first”. Where do I start with the hashtags and where do I end? #respect? #ifnotnowthenwhen?

But Sivan isn’t the only one. All along, Nachiket, Aryan, Aarav and a couple of other friends of theirs have been quietly observing my interactions with the other BFC fans. These guys form the younger crop of the West Block Blues- roughly between the ages of thirteen to sixteen, school going kids.

Going to the football aged sixteen, let alone thirteen, for me are memories that are etched in ambivalence. The thrill of sneaking out for the game also came with its risks of getting a hiding if caught. My friends and I could manage just a few games a season, compare that to these guys who are regulars in the stands. They tell me they’ve barely missed a home game since the club’s inception in 2013. And that’s not it. Their presence isn’t just felt in the numbers that make up the West Block, but also off the pitch in their respective schools and localities. At such a young age, they’ve taken the onus on themselves to make a difference by attempting to convert those who find European allegiances more fashionable than local fealty.  “As a friend says, Team in land is better than team in England” prides Nachiket, a sixteen-year-old Liverpool die-hard who’s practical enough to analyze the magnitude of the difference his presence would make locally than confining himself to just the role of a Satellite fan.

Take my word –  the future is bright

Meg, Sivan, Nachiket and his friends are the true signs of change, not the cricketer-in-the-VIPBox induced ephemerals we witness in the ISL.

My best bet at bonding with these kids is my all so famous trick question- Guess which club I support? After fifteen odd unsuccessful tries which much to my dislike included Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa, they finally come up with West Bromwich Albion. The very next question from Aryan is, “Is Pulis staying?”. The news of our unpleasant though effective style of football has travelled faster than I had expected.

Turn it up so that I can feel it…turn it up so that I can be near it

The security at the gates is strict, no backpacks allowed. Meg and her massive handbag is instrumental in smuggling my recording equipment inside the stadium. Once inside, I strap my GoPro to my head, this time making doubly sure that it’s on and recording perfectly. I had no intentions of repeating my classic stupidity in Muangthong, Bangkok, earlier this year.

A juxtaposition of the two images that simultaneously greet my eyes bears further proof in favour of the need for small, compact and reverberating edifices in Indian football.  Facing me are large expanses of barren stands and yet my immediate vicinity is packed to the rafters. The excess capacity is neither pleasing to the eye or to the ear, in person or on television. In many ways, empty stands cause a psychological prejudice about the credibility of not just the football on offer but also the culture surrounding it. The official attendance is about 6000, at 20% capacity and about a 95% of the 6000 is in the West Block.

In the lack of navigable inches in my vicinity, Vijay and Waseem stand tall. Vijay is leading the chants:

“Guys please repeat after me”

Constantine’s blue army,

(crowd repeats)

on our way to glory

(crowd repeats)

build the team from scratch he did,

(crowd repeats)

 our kids will have a story… our kid will have a story..(crowd repeats with increased intensity)

 o oo ooh oh oh oh ….. (fast-paced singing accompanied by the beating of drums)”

Our kids will have story-If ever there was a line that unifies hope and faith, then this is it.

Vijay leading the chants

Deafening, rhythmical and tear-jerking, the chants of the West Block Blues are hitting all the right chords. But such are the standards they have set for themselves. A standard which they know they need to live up to, a standard which the fans around the country expect them to fulfil today and a standard which the players on the pitch anticipate and expect to aid their performance.

Preparations are underway to unfurl the 5200-sq.ft. banner. Those right at the top of the West Block stand side by side waiting to release the colossal coiled-up piece of cloth when signalled to do so. Nachiket tells me it’s the second largest banner in Asia. Which would typically mean that it would cover the entire West Block Upper tier, leaving me with no chance of shooting the entire spectacle in one frame. At times like these, I wish I had a drone.

Shots under the banner is all I can manage

Cursing my tight purse, I slip underneath the banner instead. The blanket of blue that now covers the entire West Block, is a spectacle from underneath, the effects of which are further enhanced as the banner is slowly tugged away from over our heads, once again making way for the bright green of the football pitch in front of us.

We want to send across a message that, Indian football which is not on the word map as of the moment. All of us need to stand up together, united as a country to make ourselves count” says Nachiket, when asked about the message the banner intends to deliver.

The other choreo planned for the day is one to commemorate the national team’s rapid climb to the top 100 of the FIFA rankings-three separate cloth cutouts each representing a digit in the number 100 and one of the three colours of the tricolour Indian flag. These banners are of similar colossal proportions and again impossible to capture without a drone or unless seated on the opposite end. But tell me, who in their right mind would trade a seat amongst such melodrama for a seat in the desolate East stand for just a glimpse of the banner!

Stand Up For Indian Football Banner. Source: Google Images

We are one tonight

The football on the pitch hasn’t really hit the right notes for India, a far cry from the heights attained by the fans in the West block. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who plays as a goalkeeper for Norwegian Tippeligaen club Stabæk FC is the only Indian footballer plying his trade in Europe. So far, he has literally single-handedly kept India in the game. The crowd recognizes his efforts at every instance as “O Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’ in the tunes of the hit number ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes, ring out loud from the stands.

The atmosphere is surreal; one that raises every hair follicle on your skin. An achievement made even more commendable given the scrappy display of football on the pitch. The occasional bout of jitters, as India come close to conceding, is the only calm in the otherwise rambunctious coming together of fans.

Scrappy football and missed opportunities have left us wanting

The Kirgiz’ was expected to be a tough nut to crack despite them lingering 32 places below India in the rankings. Their physical strength in the opposition box has somewhat been dealt with by an outstanding Sandesh Jhingan, the Indian centre-back. Sandesh Jhingan is another one of those who could easily ply his trade abroad.

At the beginning of the second half, the 100 banner is out again; a sign, I was hoping would remind our players of the need to justify our lofty ranking. But alas, we begin exactly where we had left off at the end of the first half. Within the first ten minutes, Kirgizstan has a goal cleared off the line and a shot that deflects wide of the post.

It’s incredible to witness how patient this crowd is. If this had been Calcutta, the players would have been getting a lot of stick by now. Yet, Waseem and Vijay still lead from the stands, not for once bogged down by the happenings on the pitch.

Nachiket is at it too. Like Waseem and Vijay, he occasionally leads chants from next to me.

I have a strong premonition that this sixteen-year-old kid is a capo in the making. I’ve been keeping an eye on how well he imposes himself in the crowd, successfully moving the masses with his crisp vocalization of chants.

Nachiket, a capo in the making

It’s worthwhile noting how creative these guys are with their chants. There’s no doubting the heavy influence of English football, but the magic is created in replicating, improvising and vernacularizing the borrowed tunes in the local terraces. I must admit, the prodigious composers amongst the West Block Blues are quite imaginative in this respect.

The clock reads 69 minutes, Sunil Chhetri digs the ball out of the Indian defense, dribbles past three Kirgiz players, leaving another two rooted on their spot before slotting the ball delicately to his right where he finds Jeje, Jeje holds onto it for a split second, and then with a sublime lob put its back in the path of Chhetri who with his first touch buries the ball in the bottom corner. Who has the time to appreciate a touch of class, when you can jump with joy, fall over on the seat behind you dragging your neighbour down with you? The crowd go absolutely ballistic. It’s been a while since I’ve screamed my lungs out in joy. Where else would I do it, if it weren’t for this game, who else would I do it for if it weren’t for the clubs I love and the country I could give my life for? How can I ever explain to you the feeling when you hug the stranger next to you in an unsolicited moment of love and passion for a common cause?

The Viking Clap at the West Block following the goal

Till the ninetieth minute and after, the West Block sings loud and proud. It ends one-nil to India; It could have been three-nil if it weren’t for the two gilt-edged chances squandered. Players at the final whistle walk over to applaud the astonishing contribution these fans have made in this win.

He scores when he wants, he scores when he waaaants….Sunil Chhetri he scores when he wants” I sing along with Nachiket next to me, Waseem and Vijay in front of me and each one of the ecstatic men and women of my country around me. Tonight, we were one.

Dreaming out loud

Indian football fans have walked a bumpy road, often soul to soul, having seen all kinds of weather come and go. But on sunny days like these, can you help but not believe, is there anything we together cannot achieve?

A particular chant from the West Block Blues reads:

The road is long but the belief is strong,

We go marching on and on.

Playing in the world cup is a dream of mine,

we will get there all in time.

Coz I believe we will never surrender,

We have only just begun.

The road is long but the belief is strong,

This is our home and here we belong.

Let’s have faith, for soon enough, it’ll be a day like this one, when the sun shines down and those dreams of them rebels and them misfits are found.

It’ll be a day like this one when those dreams of them rebels and them misfits are found.

Realisations of a Sattelite Fan

I realise for people like Gurdial, Julie, Steve and the thousands of those whom I haven’t met, the Albion has a preponderant influence on life – a distillation of everything marvellous and everything vexatious. For them, the Hawthorns is as much as a bolt to freedom from the exigencies of living as it is a mecca of happy faces in conviviality. On the contrary, for me and many other’s growing up in India, the love for a football club was discovered rather than introduced. Few of us had anyone “take us up to the ground” as a kid. Football was for the paterfamilias, the rough, and the filthy mouthed in a patriarchal society. Women found it unattractive for obvious reasons and children were discouraged from the very beginning, till of course, some rebels like us in our early teens managed to slip out unnoticed for a few games a season.

For most of us from my generation, we had to discover fandom in a way which starkly contrasts the family affair the sport enjoys in the UK. The family sport for us Indians has always been cricket, even if it involves the odds enhancing event of growing up in a footballing city like Calcutta – which attracts a hundred thousand people on a derby day.

Time does fly. If I told you I’ve not dreamt of a genie sweeping in at the last moment, offering me to postpone my flight tickets and top up my bank account, I would be lying.

15th of October,2016 – West Brom vs Tottenham

My hosts and Chelsea fans in Birmingham

I wake up to a 7:00 AM alarm on Saturday morning. Ishita and Deepta, my friends and ever so affable hosts in Birmingham have to make it the Moor Street Station by 8:00 AM. They are travelling to Stamford Bridge for the lunch time kick-off against Leicester and it’s the first game this Chelsea-mad couple would be watching live. I can’t help but feel excited for them, having experienced mine a few weeks back.

A familiar voice rings out from the auto-announcer:

“Welcome to the London Midland rail service. This train terminates at Stourbridge Junction. Calling at Birmingham Snow Hill, Jewellery Quarter, the Hawthorns…”.

I‘m instantly reminded of how it felt to hear “The Hawthorns” the first time I boarded the train four weeks back. It’s quite the opposite now.

The walk to the stadium has to be the slowest walk I’ve ever attempted in a desperate urge to make every single step memorable. When I do eventually reach the fan zone, I find myself to be the only fan in its vicinity. The time reads 9:00 AM, clearly, a little too early for a 3:30 PM kick-off.

Pre-match 

Oh, Jimmy Jimmy! Oh Jimmy Jimmy Morrison

At half past noon, outside the East End Car Park, autograph and photograph hunters like me, speculate which player has already arrived and who’s yet to come in. The steward in charge of maintaining the gates keeps us informed through his walkie-talkie. Every time, there is a fancy car at the main gate, he gets a call on his device while we all look at him with gleaming eyes, waiting to find out. First to come in is Jimmy Morrison, then Gareth McAuley, and the rest follow. The news comes in that Ben Foster has gone in through the other gate. Everyone lets out a groan.

Rob Lake, the Director of the Albion Foundation, calls me to tell me that he has my ticket. I had spent an evening with Rob and Gurdial at the organization’s building down the road, and, I had walked away humbled and proud to be associated with a football club with such fantastic community engagement practices disability and underprivileged community engagement practices.

Rob tell’s me I’ll be sitting with the Albion Foundation team today. Our seats are right next to the Smethwick End and I have this pressing desire to jump across and start singing. But alas, I have to be content with singing in my head. To be honest, I’ve fallen in love with the Smethwick End. It is one thing to be up there, but to observe the noisiest part of the ground from a stone’s throw, is also quite an experience in itself.

Being with the Albion Foundation team for the day, gave me the opportunity to accompany the kids from the foundation to the pitch-side. Pitch-side on a match day, inches from the tunnel, in front of the dugout and I could barely believe my good fortune.

Kids from the Albion Foundation by the pitch-side

Despite my desire to be in the Smethwick, I accept that I couldn’t have asked for a ticket with a better seat that evening.

Couldn’t have wished for a better seat

In the first 45 mins, Tottenham has run us over in every department on the field. But much of their inability to score can solely be attributed to the heroics of our best ever signing in the Premier League – Ben Foster. The number of times he had bailed us out in the first half, is not a joke.

At half time, I am as battered as the eleven Albion players on the pitch. Though goalless, I shun away any optimism that might have tried to sneak up on me. Optimism is a luxury a West Bromwich Albion fan cannot afford. There’s a famous saying which goes like “You know you’re a West Brom fan when you are four-nil up and still biting your nails”.

I wish everything was scripted, at least I would have some life in me after two hours of the Albion on a Saturday. The pure ecstasy when we take the lead is met with an extra level of emotion that cannot really be quantified. I suffer from the fear of celebrating too early, how much fear is difficult to quantify, but I know it’s enough to bring me to a state of anxiety.

In the second half, we see more of the ball, but, it is clear that the only way we can break down Tottenham is via a set piece.

In the 79th minute, Albion has a corner. Chris Brunt is over the ball at the corner flag. The Smethwick end is on its toes, they can sense something in the making. I can’t, I am too nervous to even shift feet. The ball falls to James McLean off a clearance, Mclean’s shot hit’s the cross bar and falls to Nacer Chadli and Chadli!!!! Goaaal!! The players celebrate right in front of me. The Smethwick End is in delirium. I couldn’t have wished for a better seat!

We are all nervous wrecks

Seconds now seem like hours, and slowly, as we draw closer to the final whistle, I start hoping again. In the second half, I hadn’t sat down for a minute. I’m not sure how people watch a game seated, it’s self-inflicting pain to be seated at a football match.

All teary eyes

About the 86th minute, I just cannot hold back tears. I look around the Hawthorns with watery eyes. I’ve cried once in a while at previous games, but, higher levels of excitement had always crowded out a complete crying cycle, hence, so far I had ended up with just a couple of drops on my cheek. But now, I’m like a running tap. I realise that this isn’t a dream anymore. The fact that I’ve made it finally sinks in and there is no greater feeling of accomplishment than tears of joy. With every passing second, I grow confident that I’m the ‘lucky charm’, I’m confident they are going to do it for me again, I’m confident that I’ll leave the Hawthorns unbeaten, till in the 89th minute the ground breaks into an eerie silence as the wrong corner of the Smethwick End erupts in joy. Dele Alli has equalised. Hope kills.

For you, West Bromwich Albion,  in sunshine and in rain. Always.

Back at the East End Car Park, hunting for autographs, this time around I get the ones I missed out on before the game. Ben Foster, Matty Philips and then comes Berahino, cutting a forlorn figure as he makes his way to his fancy car.

My MOM: Ben Foster

Saido Berahino is probably the best striker we’ve owned since the days of Super Bob, and that’s a good fifteen years. Yet, he’s far from being swamped by awestruck kids and their eager parents. Around him lingers a solitary annoying fan repeatedly taunting him for the new contract he has refused at the club. If decadence in football needed a solid metaphor, he would be it.

A year and a half earlier he was the golden boy; the boy that was supposed to usher in a new era in the fortunes of West Bromwich Albion. Now, I can best describe him as estranged. I stand there for a moment trying to picture how different the same situation would have been a year and a half back. I picture a smiling Berahino, surrounded by kids who idolised him and fans who would go to any lengths to have a chance to take a photograph with him. The fall-out as I can see has clearly been acrimonious.

But, I’m a fan from India. For me, bumping into football stars come few and far between. I am on a trip of a lifetime and there stood in front of me the scorer of goals which have left me with many memories to cherish as a West Brom fan. I fumbled with that sharpie as I tried to hand it over to him and drop it in the process. Saido bends down to pick it up and says “I think you dropped this mate.” and he then signs my shirt.

By now it’s started to rain. I stuff my autographed jersey inside my jacket to protect it. That right then was the best thing I’d ever owned. At 7:30 pm, I’m the only one near the car Park barring a couple of stewards. The only car yet to leave is that of the manager. It’s starting to get cold but I’m determined to get that autograph knowing very well that next time may not be anytime soon. While I wait, I replay all the memories I’ve made throughout the day and throughout my time at this football club. I’m too cold to get emotional but I’m warmed by the thought.

Looking back, everything seemed uncanny. A chain of events the odds of which were really low. After all, I had just come to watch a few games and had written my blog post not to be discovered but to let out a lot of pent up emotions which I hadn’t spoken to anyone about in fifteen years. Yet, a lot of people got to know and the universe did conspire for the better.

My mind then drifts back to the time I had decided on making this trip and how unsure I was about everything. Fast forward to now, I recognize how different it would have been if that stranger hadn’t sent me a message on Facebook to change everything. I’d received some sad news last morning. Gurdial’s dad had passed away. Neither could she make it to the game nor could I say my goodbyes given the situation. As I stood in the cold waiting for Tony Pulis to arrive, I couldn’t help but feel heaviness in my heart.

Have you ever, ever come across an unkind Punjabi anywhere in the world?

I shout out to the steward at the door of the East End Entrance “Do you know when the Gaffer’s coming out?”.

“Not sure mate, maybe half an hour or one. You can come and wait inside if you want!”. I realise the steward is of Indian Origin.  He introduces himself as Prem and tells me he’s a Punjabi.

I had walked out of the Hawthorns, looking back some fifty times, trying to frame that last look as a perfect memory even before it had passed me, but here I was once again facing the West Stand with those large letters of WEST BROMWICH ALBION FOOTBALL CLUB staring back at me. I tell Prem my story, he’s overwhelmed and immediately insists he takes some more photographs for me. A photo shoot ensues till he thinks I look okay.

Prem and I chat for a while. He offers me a spare team sheet and some unused bottles of Lucozade and water to take back with me. “Was going to give them to my kids, but you can keep them, the players left it behind,” he says. People can be generous in very simple ways.

He talks about his village in India, his love for the Albion and how he’s teaching himself to code at the young age of forty-something. Prem also invites me to his daughter’s wedding in Punjab but I politely decline knowing very well, another leave request at work and I would be fired. Laughing at my response, he then says

“Okay then, would you like to get one last close up of the pitch?” I look at him confused. Did he mean a walk around the perimeter of the pitch?

I look at him confused. Did he mean a walk around the perimeter of the pitch?

“C’mon, let’s step on to the pitch. This better be quick” he says again, setting foot on the turf at the Hawthorns.

With the Incredible man – Prem

I stare at him in disbelief. The only thing that was left to tick off on my West Brom bucket list was stepping on to the pitch. I  run around a bit, imagining myself in a West Brom kit. I’m twenty-nine years old, but nineteen on my toes and nine at heart. At one point, I closed my eyes to picture what it must have been like during the pitch invasion after The Great Escape.

At around half past eight Tony Pulis makes his way to the East End exit. Prem introduces me to him and I take out the team sheet and my jersey to get it signed by him. “Have you got the rest of the team to sign it?” he says. I nod to affirm, a little star struck. I love how all these larger than life people on television actually feel like humans in real.

On my way out, I give Prem a tight hug and wish him well. I then ask myself “Have you ever, ever come across an unkind Punjabi anywhere in the world?”. Thinking hard, trying to recollect an untoward experience with a Punjabi in all my twenty-nine years of existence on earth, I conclude- “Nope. Never.”  Prem in Hindi literally translates to ‘Love’.

 

On the pitch in the dark

The universe does conspire for the good, right?

I’d nothing to eat since breakfast, and the McDonalds on the other side of the road had never looked more enticing. On the way, I stop at the Astle gates one last time, this time I stretch my arms out wide to get most of what I could cover, and hold tight for a while. I wonder how many people in this world are crazy enough to hug a gate, but there I was.

At one corner of McDonald’s, I spot a Wolves fan seated with his burger throwing periodic glances in my direction. Laughing in my head I bet myself he’s jealous of that premier league patch on my shirt.

I sit down to unwrap my burger when I notice the door open, “What are the Odds!” I shout choking back tears. There she stood, Gurdial Singh, the lady who had made everything possible. An hour earlier I had been ruing not having met her for a one last time. Her son Josh, who was at McDonald’s too, had recognized me and informed her(she was waiting in the car outside). The universe does conspire for the good, right?

Gurdial was carrying a book which she wanted to give me. She had wanted to get it signed by the writer himself but had been unable to do so under current circumstances. I insisted she writes something for me instead.

Goodbye my Birmingham mother – I’ll miss you

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Rewind to the year 2010, in a postal package, had arrived the first home and away colours that I had ever owned. Seven years on, I’ve amassed an impressive collection of shirts – mostly used ones from e-bay. Then again, today is a special day, and it is only fitting that I wear the first I’ve owned.

On the train to the Hawthorns, it dawns on me, that for the first time in fifteen years I am actually not going to be watching a game alone. Astonishingly, with so many people in Albion colours around me, I no longer feel the sense of longing I had felt for so many years.

En route the Hawthorns for my first home game.

Too good to be true! 

I had been invited over to the club before the game by Drew Williams – The Media Manager at West Brom. In his email to me, he had not revealed details of the day’s itinerary, but I had been told by Gurdial that people at the club were looking forward to my visit.

Silky grey hair cut short, with a look of simultaneous affection and sternness in her eyes, Gurdial Singh fits my knack of recognizing a motherly figure. But unlike the many mothers I had adopted back home, she wears a West Bromwich Albion jacket and a scarf to match. I bumped into her while waiting for Drew and we ended up embracing like we had known each other for years. After all, if it hadn’t been for her, Drew or anyone at the club, wouldn’t have known that I existed.

“I must admit some of your lines on the blog brought tears to my eyes” she had said giving me a hug.

C’mon you baggies!!

Skipping the Stadium tour, because I had already done it yesterday, Drew and I make our way to the pitch-side instead. In front of the player’s tunnel, Adam Fradgley – the club photographer – awaits my presence with his massive lenses. He intends to shoot a portfolio of me from different angles in the stands. Though I am far from being photogenic, the session did end with a few priceless high-quality photos of mine at the Hawthorns.

 

Jonny Evans and I

Soon after, Drew redirects my attention to the first team players walking down from the East End entrance to the player’s tunnel. When they reach the entrance of the tunnel, Drew stops each and every one of them and introduces me to them. Within minutes, I was shaking hands, signing my shirt and taking photographs with the likes of Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Darren Fletcher. This was too good to be true.

Adam Fradgley joins us again and this time he asks for Darren Fletcher and me to be in the same frame for a photo. When, HAL Robson-Kanu pops in from the other side and says “Hello, mind if I join in too?!”. A Premier League player had asked to be in a photograph with me. Could someone convince me that all this wasn’t a dream?

With Darren Fletcher and HAL Robson-Kanu

 Meeting Tony ‘Bomber’ Brown

“Tony Brown would like you to meet him at the media box!” says Drew putting his phone away.

I’m sure I hadn’t heard him properly. “What? The Legendary ‘Bomber’ Brown? I said. Drew nodded in the affirmative.

Tony Brown, an England international with over 700 games and 250 goals spread over seventeen years with his beloved Baggies. Many of these goals have been an outcome of explosive runs and net bursting long rangers. Hence the name ‘Bomber’.

For all my fifteen years as a Baggie, ‘Bomber Brown’ had been a three-part documentary on YouTube. Now seated in front of me was the man himself, tall and strong for a seventy-year-old. The winter-white hair on his otherwise receding hairline added to the humble charm his smile emits. “Who’s that kid down there?” he had asked Gurdial, spotting me from the media box. She had told him my story. “Get him up here” Bomber had said.

The Man. The Legend.

I’ve a thing for old people; I get attached really quick. The sight of this old man had choked me up. With swollen eyes, I reached for his feet. We Indians touch feet as a mark of respect for our elders. Sounds a little dramatic, but that’s how emotional I get when it comes to football.

“Who do you think is going to win today?” he asked. The question I had been dreading. Our results are often so random – sometimes so unexpectedly good or bad, that, I can never be sure about an outcome. As Adrian Chiles would say “It’s never easy, it’s never dull. West Bromwich Albion, this is my club.”

So, I reply in stutters “I’m not really sure. We haven’t been great of late”.

“You must believe Albion will win today” he sternly replies with the kind of optimism uncharacteristic of a West Bromwich Albion fan. Yes, footballers are fans too. Just in case you thought otherwise!

 

Speaking of Adrian Chiles, the man himself sits two tables away from us. His BBC Match of the Day 2 shows I downloaded holistically as a kid for highlights and specials, has led him to be easily recognizable.

“It was a great read,” he says, digging into his Chicken Balti pie, referring to my blog post, which Gurdial had emailed him earlier. To have been recognized in a good light by a man so experienced in journalism is an accolade I’ll cling onto forever.

Adrian Chiles and I

Adrian tells me about a documentary he has been researching on and will eventually be presenting for the BBC. The story of a football match in 1979 which not many people are aware of, including me. The match was Len Cantello’s (an Albion legend) testimonial and was played between a team of All white players versus a team of All Black players.

“A unique topic,” says Adrian. “In today’s world of football, it is unthinkable to even attempt to organise a game of that nature.”

While at the table, Ian Skidmore, Head of Content at WBA, came over to ask me my shirt size. Moments later, he returned with this season’s home jersey in his hand. “We all thought you need an upgrade” he chuckled while handing it over. By now I had become so used to surprises that an intended surprise was no longer surprising.

Gurdial suggested we go for a drink to the fan zone before taking our seats. On our way out, I’m introduced to Paul Raven – an ex-Albion great and John Homer –the president of the WBA fans association.

The fan zone is basically a sea of Albion faithful’s downing beer and grabbing a bite before the game. A little awkward and overwhelming for the fan who had never seen another Albion soul in his 15 years as a Baggie. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ rings out from the loud speakers as the Hull City game (lunch time kick-off), plays on the big screen in front of us. Gurdial and I sip our respective beers. We do not speak much. Rather I don’t; I’m still reeling from the events that had transpired over the last two hours.

The lady who made everything possible. My other mother from Birmingham!

Finally in the stands 

Outside the gates of the Smethwick, I walk up to a fan hoping to bum a cigarette off him. He stands with his old man who looks like he’s well into his seventies. Introducing himself as Mark, the man then goes on to introduce his father who takes the opportunity to mention that this is his 60th year as a West Brom fan. “It’s been a family thing. My dad used to take me up as a kid” he says.  Sixty years! That’s twice as long as I’ve lived.

“You better watch out for those West Ham fans,” he quips. “In my time, they used to be the most notorious of the lot, don’t think that’s changed much.”

The timing of that statement is quite perfect. A group of West Ham fans, in their claret and blue walk past us chanting “I’m forever blowing bubbles”. I’m reminded of scenes from the movie ‘The Green Street Hooligans’.

The first notes of the Liquidator ring out soon enough and I almost make the mistake of rushing in with the beer glass still in my hand. It had completely slipped my mind that drinking wasn’t allowed in the stands.

 

“You need to finish your drink,” says the steward.

Wiretapping conversations around me, I surmise that the mood inside the Smethwick is ambiguous. Four points from twelve against the winnable opposition is not the pressing concern, but the way the team has lost the remaining eight, playing boring and unattractive football is. Conversations, nonetheless, are music to my ears. Can you imagine not having someone to analyse a game with for fifteen years? Extreme.

At the whistle, it is loud and noisy and seemed like I had made the right choice in picking the Smethwick End over the Brummie Road for my first game. I needed those songs to live the moment in its entirety.

aye aye aye o! Aye aye aye o! West Brom FC! From the Black Country!

The Lucky Charm

Six minutes into the game, it’s a penalty for the Albion. Right in front of the Smethwick. The opportunity to express and capture my first Albion goal had been served to me on a plate. Nacer Chadli steps ups and dispatches the ball to the bottom left corner. I can’t remember the last time I screamed with such unbridled joy. Silly little tears rolled down my eyes. I’m Boing Boinging at 8 minutes, who would have thought!

West Ham United is a good team. The likes of Payat and Lanzini have kept our players on their toes. But in the 37th minute, it’s 2-0 to the Albion. Rondon drops his shoulder to coax the defender and slots it past Adrian. The Smethwick goes mental. I celebrate; albeit at eighty percent of the ecstasy I showed during the first goal. 2-0 ups for West Brom this early on in the game generally end in 2-2 draws or a 3-2 defeat. I’m all too familiar with how it creeps up – sailing well, suddenly from nowhere two quick goals and I’ll be biting my nails off for just a point.

Right before half time, Albion have a corner. The excitement in the Smethwick at the event of a corner is obvious. Ever since Tony Pulis’ has taken over, we’ve been celebrating more corners than goals. Matty Phillips presides over this one. The ball falls to Chadli and his shot rebounds into the path of Mclean. James Mlceaaaaan! 3-0 to the Albion!! My word! The crowd works themselves into a state of frenzy. I hug people around me like they are the only family I’ve ever known.

They are calling me the lucky charm now in the Smethwick. For fifteen years, I had thought otherwise – correlating my attempts to get in touch with the club, with the misfortunes of WBA FC. And 3-0 up at half time and all these fans around me have to say is “This is unbelievable mate!! You gotta come here every week mate!!”.

3-0 up at half time and all they have to say is ” You need to come back every week!

There are obvious reasons for such bewilderment. The scoreline is so uncharacteristic of West Bromwich Albion under Tony Pulis, that it visibly shows on everyone’s faces. Eleven minutes into the second half, it gets even better. Chadli bursts through the West Ham defence to score the fourth. Our fans in the Smethwick sing “Are you Villa? Are you villa? Are you Villa in disguise? Are you the villa in disguise?”

Five minutes later, Antonio pulls one back for West Ham and a couple minutes after the first goal, West Ham wins a penalty. Lanzini steps up to make it 4-2 right in front of the Smethwick. The stand falls into an eerie silence. You can sense the regular West Bromwich Albion-esque jitters creeping up. The West Ham fans shout “They are winning but they are scared!”. That we were to our guts. This is West Bromwich Albion; it’s never easy it’s never dull.

Ben Foster makes outstanding saves to keep us from further free fall. When the final whistle blows, I realise a palpitating heart is an import part of our ethos as a football club.

Perfect days do exist.

It’s been a great day. A day where every emotional aspect I had hoped of experiencing as a West Bromwich Albion fan had actually transpired.  Unbridled joy to a racing heart, off the seat boinging to edge of my seat, hoping for the clock to run out. It had all happened. Somewhere down in my heart it felt like the team had done it for me.

A year ago, I remember having a heart to heart conversation with a bunch of backpackers at a seaside shack in the coastal town of Gokarna, India. The shack was dimly lit by hurricane lanterns and with the sound of the sea waves crashing against the shore, it was a perfect evening to reflect and inspire. We were about ten, and each of us took turns to tell others a story that had changed our lives and a longing that we wanted to fulfil. And When it was my turn, I said with a great appetite for football “I want to travel to every major footballing nation in the world, visit the top 100 football stadiums and then pen down all my experiences in a book.”

“And when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it” – Paulo Coelho. One year on, here I am ticking off number one on my list. The remaining hundred shall be ranked when I’m done visiting all.

Extracts of this article first appeared on the West Bromwich Albion official website. Click to read on wbafc.co.uk

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.

Shades in the dark! So us!

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.

Read Part-1 of this series

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!”

 

Birmingham Moor Street Station

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.

Almost there!

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.

The Hawthorns at first sight.

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.

Yasss! tears of joy beckon

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.

The Astle Gates.

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”.

The Hawthorns from my seat at The Smethwick End.

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.

L to R: Mathew Dainty, Myself, Pranay Kapuria

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.

Ruminating on Satellite fandom

Have you ever wondered, what is it like to be an obscure dot on the football fan heat map? Has it ever crossed your mind, that, even though you consider yourself to be a fanatic, unconditionally love your jersey, kiss that badge every Saturday, you are with all due respect as good as chicken feed? Ought you not to have realised, that there are hundreds and thousands like you? While hundreds and thousands on a collective front sound stronger, but don’t you think, you alone in that vast expanse of red/blue/white ocean/army – whatever colour and symbol of unity you decide to associate yourself with- is nothing but low-key?  Well, I’m being a little too harsh here.

But seriously, have you ever? Have you ever amidst your 10-6 job; your hectic city life; and your constant endeavor to please your boss and up that paycheck, thought what it would be like, standing on the terraces singing to your hearts content or seated at the ‘insert club legend’ stand to soak in the incredible atmosphere football has to offer at your favorite football club? Do social media and your television screen largely bear the brunt of a missed pass or a failed transfer? Do you anticipate Saturdays more than any other day from anywhere but mainland Europe?  Tick all or tick most, the odds are you are a Satellite fan and the chances of you remaining one are pretty darn high.

I first came across the phrase ‘Satellite fan’ while writing my master’s thesis in Economics on expected consumption behaviour of football fans in India. With an intent to explore the consumption potential of a commercial set up similar to the English premier league, I collected about 1040 survey responses from all over the country. Not surprisingly just 1.63% of the respondents attributed their reason for support for a European football team due to them or their families living in and around the area of the football club at some point in time in their lives, whereas, an astonishing 39% of them claim to possess original merchandise of the club they support. This was in April 2011, a good couple of years before the Indian Super League was set up. That’s exactly how influential worldwide broadcasting has been in shaping fan behaviour.

But this isn’t a paper on fan behaviour or an essay on globalisation, I’m here to talk about what it is to be a satellite fan – an obscure dot yet a fervent follower of a football club in the charismatic world of football fans. I’m here to talk about an atheist that prays on a Saturday or an ambivert that experiences extremism. I’m here to talk about the millions like you and me, so easily influenced by the happenings of events from a couch in the living room. At this point you must be thinking ‘this must be another crazy Indian Manchester United fan on an emotional rant’; Well here I am 15 years and counting a wholehearted West Bromwich Albion fanatic.

What How and Why?

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Explaining WHW – Chelsea vs Spurs cup final

Well, I did not really have to end the previous paragraph with that little shocker, but, then again I like popping this in while having a conversation on football with strangers. It is all so hilarious to witness a face of surprise, distress, concern and sympathy all in quick succession and all necessarily in that order.  Men talking about football is comparable to women gossiping. Trust me on this.  Soon enough their friends know and then theirs and if by chance I happen to cross paths I am overshot with the all too familiar questions of WHW -i.e. What, How and Why? – all over again. And every time, every single time in the last 15 years I have inevitably stumbled at why.

Well, I can’t really end with swagger – I can’t say “we win trophies” or “we’ve won trophies”, I’m no red devil or a Scouser; I am a baggie, and I still do not know why. I must admit, I’ve given this some scant thought and the only superficial reason I have got myself to come to terms with is that the Albion kit closely resembles my school colours. The alma mater is always a great pull, that’s probably where you would have made friends through football, a.k.a friends for life.

Fanaticism from a distance

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ManUtd vs WBA with ManUtd fans

My tryst with West Bromwich Albion Football Club started in 2002-03 their first season in the premier league. I remember the first game I watched was against Manchester United on the opening day of the season, and damn was it not tempting to back the team in red. Well, that was what everyone else around me was doing. For some unfathomable reason, I got hooked to the navy and white.  

I was hooked to Jeff Astle and the stories I read about him, such an enchanting name – sounded like a character straight out of an Enid Blyton book. His name and stories about his work ethic struck an immediate chord in my heart. I was thirteen then, young and passionate. I read up everything I could, watched every video I could find and downloaded as many pictures as I could lay my eyes upon.

In those days the internet was hard to come by and expensive, 50 rupees for half an hour on a 256kb/s connection. Comparing that to today, at times I wonder how I managed. But I did. I negotiated, I sacrificed, spent hours at the house of friends who had a broadband connection. I used to stay up nights at their place making use of the broadband and a loophole on the WBA website which allowed one to download the latest videos from Albion TV – highlights, player interviews, and classic matches. To me the guy who had chanced upon this loophole was God. I did not know his real name, he called himself the albionlad on the internet.  For the many yo-yo years that Albion spent bouncing in between divisions until 2010, albionlad was my main go-to-man for highlights and DVDRips.

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Carefully curated video repository of the yo-yo years. Credit to the albionlad.

This relationship’s been hard work to be fair. it’s never easy being a fan where the only thing you look forward to is beating the drop every season. So the season when we finished 8th under Steve Clark, with victories over the big four, I felt like we had won the league.

My favourite memory supporting the Albion, was when we went into the final game of the season bottom, and somehow still managed to survive, probably because everyone else around us was more hopeless than us. What a day that was! I can tell you with the absolute assurance that half of my city was at the Joe Satriani concert. Can you imagine Joe Satriani in Calcutta? Which ‘Sane and Able’ person would miss that? Probably still the biggest music event the city has ever hosted till date. And there I was in front of the telly, wearing an England shirt (that hadn’t been washed since the first day of the season simply because the otherwise iconoclastic me considered it to be lucky) waiting with bated breath for the Albion to score.

We needed a win with the right permutation of results to stay up and when ‘The Horse’ fired in a volley from close range was I not bouncing as high as the twenty-six odd thousand at the Hawthorns that day! That bit of commentary on the television which went like “Horsfieeeeld !! Geoff Horsfield’s first touch of the ball!! What a substitution!!” still rings loud. But in between then and the final whistle, the bottom four places on the league table probably had changed a good 10 times. So it was pretty ironic when John ‘Fortune’ levelled for Charlton against Palace at the death to keep us up and send Palace down. That day I cried in front of the TV set absolutely unaware that no one from The West Midlands in Birmingham, England, even knew I existed.

Probability theory and Superstition

For many years I was labelled as the only Albion fan in India by friends and strangers alike. “You must be the only one!!” said everybody. Felt like Harry ‘the boy who lived’ Potter. “Probably Sir, I think I am”. And yet, despite the fact, that there are thousands of Indians living in Birmingham and with a good hunch that my club has a sizeable number of fans of Indian Origin, it was quite weird that I had never come across one residing in India.

It was only last year that I came to know of two – Bharat Bhudiraja and Pranay Kapuria – through some videos of a premier league workshop that the club was conducting in Mumbai. Both of them, no doubting their love for the club, is relatively a newer generation of Albion fans in India, and I can only hope there are more. Fair play to them for not following the herd.

But that raises a very pertinent question; Why had I not tried to contact the club in all my years as an Albion fan?

The answer to this question is a problem that is a larger part of the ‘unwashed jersey syndrome’ that I suffer from. I had this depressing habit of correlating two totally unrelated events when it comes to football. Like, if A is an event that is defined as ‘Me writing to the club’ and B is the event that defines ‘Albion’s chances of getting relegated that season’, in practicality, even so more given I’m an Economist/Statistician and an iconoclast, the probability of B occurring should have no bearing on occurrence of event A. I mean what are the odds that my mail would have any bearing on the season of a football club?

But that’s exactly why football fanatics are funnily enough on the same boat as hypocrites. For me, A and B could possibly never be independent. I had drafted a letter mid-way through the 2005-06 season, the season after the great escape, only to scrap plans following a dismal run of results. They eventually got relegated anyway, which just accentuated superstition, with Event B now becoming “Me thinking of writing to the club”. So, when the club’s travelling contingent recognised Pranay as Albion’s biggest fan in a youtube interview in Mumbai, I felt like a little kid who had been denied his favourite toy.

DIY your colours; A bit of luck and tons of goodwill

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The export surplus shop below my house in Chennai where I chanced upon my first piece of WBA merchandise

I found my first piece of Albion merchandise in an export surplus shop below my house in a dingy bylane of Chennai. It was a blue hoodie with the crest beautifully sewn in. Not official, but nonetheless chanced upon by a bit of intuition. I remember spotting Plymouth Argyle, Scunthorpe United and Barnsley on the top of the pile, which of course made the odds of finding an Albion piece higher than if I had instead spotted a ManUtd and an Arsenal hoodie. No joke there, I do think in probabilities.

But that was in 2010, till then, I drew on t-shirts and painted walls with Albion colours to get by. After my 10th standard board exams, I convinced my parents to let me paint a part of a wall in my room. I had also tried getting the logo woven on a t-shirt by the family tailor, who eventually gave up given the intricacies.

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My younger brother and his friend poses with the wall
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The year 2006: In my unwashed England shirt, posing in front of  the wall I had painted

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And owning a jersey? –  A scuppered dream. Every bloody time. Back then, I had a grand uncle and an aunt living in Sheffield who used to visit every two years. One such year, I had asked them to get me a West Brom jersey. All they got back was an England training shirt. The same one that remained unwashed from August to May every year. Add to that, the number of friends I begged and pleaded when they were travelling back to India. Apparently, they never found one.  And then finally in 2011, this pretty girl who’s heart I would break later in life, got me back my first ever West Bromwich Albion Shirt. Both home and away. I was foolish alright but forever grateful.

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Season 2010-11 home shirt: The first home shirt I’ve owned.
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Season 2010-11 away shirt: The first away shirt I’ve owned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We am the baggies! Aye, we are!

We are kind of quite well loved. I mean you never hear anybody saying “we’ve got a soft spot for Wolves”. You don’t hear that. But people do have a soft spot for West Brom. We got a name to conjure with and it hits when you are young, ‘WEST BROMWICH ALBION’ – there’s a lot of syllables in there. That’s not your ordinary silly little name like Aston Villa or Hull City. It’s a good long name.

It’s frustrating to think that at times we’ve played like the Arsenal, at times like Stoke and at times like Macclesfield Town. Right now we are the new Stoke City, and I do not enjoy it one bit. It’s never easy being an Albion fan I tell you. It feels to me like we’ve lost about a thousand, won about six and drawn probably about a three hundred. But in actual fact, the difference between the games we’ve won or lost in all my time, has probably been about 20 mins?  It makes you wonder, what’s it all for? If West Brom didn’t exist, I think I would be a better person. A lot more relaxed. I think I would watch football matches without leaving my fingerprints on the sofa.

An obscure fan with big dreams

I’ve attempted in this write up to encapsulate every aspect of being an Albion fan in front of the telly and now it’s about time I got my sorry bottom on a seat at the Hawthorns. So, I’m heading off with a backpack and a lot of excitement to run down my ever evolving baggies dream – from owning a jersey to watching them live.

By watching them against West Ham United this Saturday I initiate my one-month backpacking tour around the UK – aiming to witness as many live games in as many stadiums as possible. All this for the partial fulfilment of the ultimate goal of watching a match in the top 101 stadiums in the world over the next seven years and writing a book about my travels. To backpack around the world, you need a purpose. And the funny thing about purpose is, that it should be unique. I believe I’ve found mine in football.

If you are able and fortunate enough, I urge you to find and follow yours. I urge you to save, forego, sweat, adjust, request and negotiate, even if it’s just that once. The last thing any football fan would want to come to terms with, aged seventy, is the opportunity cost of not watching your team live. Well, that’s too much advice, but at this very moment, as I finish, all that this satellite fan can think of is BOINGING to ‘The Liquidator’ at the Smethwick End.

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The Smethwick End Here I come