England

Around the world for football: WBA vs Tottenham- A tearful goodbye to the beloved

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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

 

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