The international man of mystery
To suggest that Igor Balis was only famous for 15 minutes is, I accept, heresy. Igor’s name will live on for evermore for it is written in the Good Book that Igor did step up and score the penalty kick at Bradford City that won Albion promotion to the Premier League and, better yet, left Staffordshire in darkness.
But there are so many myths and legends that surround the dark warrior from Slovakia that he might have sat around King Arthur’s round table rather than Gaffer Gary’s square dressing room. The international man of mystery was the very stuff of fable, yet he came so innocently and left so quietly that it’s almost as if he were never here, were it not for those footprints left in the Black Country swarf, and the slew of kids who represented a spike in the birth rate, busy celebrating their 13th birthdays next January, all conceived in the fumbling throes of post-Bradford booze soaked ecstasy and who now bear his name in memory of that great day in Yorkshire.
It’s easy to forget that Igor arrived the season before his great glory, coming to The Hawthorns on trial before Christmas 2000 before signing up as a player.
These were the days before we had our own training ground, when footballers reported to the dressing rooms in Halfords Lane before finding out where they were going to go training, generally finding themselves on the patch of grass behind the Tom Silk Building.
I have an image burned on my mind of driving to work down the Birmingham Road one December morning and seeing Igor on the other side of the road, walking purposefully towards The Hawthorns with his boots in a brown paper parcel under his arm.
Unless he was bringing in the empties for recycling – Igor gained something of a reputation while billeted in the Moat House of giving the mini bar in his room some ‘ommer. This quickly stopped when he realised he had to pay for said drinks and had already used up most of his relocation allowance...
Actually, the contents of the mini bar were possibly a little tame for Igor. When he was joined later by Stanislav Varga at the Shrine, the two were able to drink Andy Johnson under the table by the use of strange, blue vodka (possibly meths, though we could never substantiate this). Getting Jonno hammered was no small feat but the Slovaks did it with ease.
Once he was properly signed up here, the Balis family was ferried over to join him, including the kids, Boris and Denis.
Another indelible memory of the Balis years was seeing him in the car park in Halfords Lane after a game, sitting in his car like a particularly high powered KGB agent – yes, I know it’s the wrong nationality – the window wound halfway down so you could just see his penetrating gaze. As he sat, he threw a tennis ball into the distance for Denis and Boris to fetch. Well, he wasn’t allowed to keep a dog in the house he was renting.
But then, the day of days, Bradford. Gary Megson allowed the legend to grow that in that season where we couldn’t score a penalty for love nor money, Igor had never told anybody he could take them.
Clearly nonsense, for a manager who so prided himself on attention to detail would surely not have failed to notice that in the early season League Cup shoot out at Cambridge United, Igor was one of those who slotted his spot kick away with aplomb. There again, the best penalty of the night was converted by James Quinn, so go figure.
The other tale, that Igor was the only one willing to take the penalty because he was the only one who had no idea of its significance, is equally garbage. Igor might not have had a Shakespearean command of the Queen’s, but he was well capable of reading a league table.
Nor was he anybody’s fool. Igor knew more English than he ever let on, a neat tactic to help him avoid being quizzed by the media. He was rumbled one day when, padding down the corridor from restaurant to dressing room, we caught him lustily trumpeting the virtues of fish and chips to Varga.
The look on his face when he saw he’d been overheard was priceless. But some secrets are best kept in house and we chose never to expose Igor’s blossoming grasp of English.
One more season was Igor’s lot in England, then he returned home. I’d like to think there are whole sections of Bratislava that have been renamed in his honour, for that might be some compensation for the fact that the international man of mystery now struggles with tinnitus.
Where he got it, who knows? Mind, it was noisy work being a full-back patrolling up and down in front of that dug out.