Have you ever wondered, what is it like to be an obscure dot on the football fan heat map? Have you ever wondered 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?
Have you ever realized that there are hundreds and thousands like you, while hundreds and thousands on a collective front sound stronger, but you by yourself in that vast expanse of red/blue/white ocean/army – whatever color 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 soaking in the incredible atmosphere football has to offer at your favorite football club? Does 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 behavior 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 behavior.
But this isn’t a paper on fan behavior or an essay on globalization, 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 pray’s 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.
Well, I did not really have to end that paragraph with that little shocker, but, then again I like popping that 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 colors. 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.
Over the years I have come to be known as ‘The West Brom Guy’ in my friend circles and theirs; and over time there has been acceptance, just like all little shocks take some time to set in. But there has rarely ever been any ridicule. Why would a Liverpool fan with five European cups in his armor bother having a battle of words with me, why would that at all make sense? All I’ll have to throw at them is “at least we are debt free” and that’s pretty legit. Read this for statistical insight: The Swiss Ramble’s take on prudent WestBrom.
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.
I remember how his name and stories about his work ethic struck an immediate chord in my heart. I was thirteen then, young and passionate. I remember reading up everything I could, watching every video I could find and downloading 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.
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 favorite 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 iconoclastic me considered it to be lucky- waiting with baited 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 bouncing as high as the twenty-six odd thousand at the Hawthorns that day.
That bit off 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’ leveled 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.
For many years I was labeled 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, are 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 traveling contingent recognized Pranay as Albion’s biggest fan in a youtube interview in Mumbai, I felt like a little kid who had been denied his favorite toy.
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 colors 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. And a jersey? That was like 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 when I was fifteen, 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 traveling 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.
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, I think I would be more relaxed. I think I would watch football matches without leaving my fingerprints on the sofa.
I’ve attempted in this write up to encapsulate every aspect of being an Albion fan in front of the telly, 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. With watching them against West Ham United this Saturday I initiate my one-month backpacking tour around the UK, aiming to watch as many live games in as many stadiums as possible. All this for the partial fulfillment of the ultimate goal of watching a match in the top 100 stadiums in the world over the next seven years and writing a book about my travels.
To backpack around the world, you need purpose and this funny thing about purpose is it’s 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. That last thing you would want to come to terms with ,aged seventy ,is the opportunity cost of not watching your team live or as a matter of fact anything else you really wanted to do in life but didn’t. 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.