England

Around the world for football: The perfect day – WBA vs West Ham United

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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

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