Debanjan Banerjee, 28, lives in Calcutta where he works as a data analyst. He fell in love with Albion in 2002 and now blogs regularly about the Baggies. Here he tells the emotional story of his first visit to The Hawthorns for Saturday’s 4-2 win over West Ham United.
Things have been moving too fast I admit. A week back, I was in Bangalore, with zero stamps on my passport. West Bromwich Albion was a satellite sensation, The Hawthorns was a dream and ‘Bomber’ Brown was a four-part documentary downloaded from Youtube. I remember, while writing my article about my journey as a West Brom fan, I would stop for a second or two to introspect if this made sense at all. I had become so used to my chosen path of unrequited love that I had serious doubts whether my heartfelt lines would ever reach the club. Yet, today as I write, I cannot stop thinking about the incredible amounts of love I have been shown by the club and its fans over the last three days. Makes you wonder, how fine the line is between taking a chance and not.
Saturday was perfect. Is there anything else I could have asked for? We haven’t had the best results of late, but to put four goals past a team that finished 7th in the league last season was brilliant. The guys at the Smethwick End were at it “This is unbelievable mate, you gotta come here every weekend mate”. It almost felt like the team did it for me. And then as I checked my messages, congratulatory wishes had started pouring in from India and elsewhere, I had gotten my Man United, Liverpool and Chelsea friends to watch the Albion game on TV and I hadn’t even asked them once. Even the lifelong Rangers fan whom I’m going to stay with in Glasgow was in front of his television looking out for an Albion win. It was overwhelming. I can now relate to that line from Paulo Coelho’s book, the Alchemist which says “One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving.”
This felt special not just because I was at the ground, but because I had managed to unite so many people from different parts of the world for a cause that was just my own. “I am the lucky charm” they said. And for all these years I thought I was the opposite. Look, I’m not very religious, I do believe in a force that binds the world but I’m iconoclastic at the same time. So when the very few times that I pray, I ask for what I deserve and not what I want. And before the game, I had only asked for what I deserve. Kind of connects well with the Baggies. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I’ll not want” - that’s what they say at The Hawthorns, don’t they?!
LOYALTY: Debanjan in front of his hand-painted Albion mural in 2006
I had come to The Hawthorns the day before, just to get a feel of the stadium. On getting off at the railway station I was clueless about which direction to head. I had asked for directions from this middle aged man who was about to enter the platform to catch his train. He was with his son and probably in a hurry to get somewhere. But then something beautiful happened. “Hold on, I’ll walk you there” he said. As we walked up to the street next to the academy, he tapped me on my shoulder and pointed to the right. “There you are my friend”. I was caught between wanting to thank him and not wanting to take my eyes of that stadium. I had probably imagined my first sight of The Hawthorns a hundred times over in the last week. I blurted out choking back tears, “This is my first time here. Been a fan for fifteen years. Means a lot!”. His little son and he smiled back and as I walked down the street, towards the shrine, I stopped in my tracks for a good thirty seconds to let out the tears I had held back all that while.
On my way to the entrance, I took a couple of minutes to stand in front of the Astle Gates staring at something that had been a Facebook cover picture, a wallpaper, a printed out poster on my wall but this was as real as it could get. I was pinching myself every minute, wait no, every second.
Mathew Dainty, Head of Marketing at WBA, greeted me at the reception. Mathew is a football man. He is Chairman of non-league football club Pagers Rangers, has watched a game in over 300 stadiums and he sets himself missions - the latest being watching one home match at every 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.
I am a little obsessed with first sights. I’ve had this obsession ever since my first game at a stadium many years ago. I think it was India vs Japan in a World Cup Qualifier. I vividly recollect that mesmerizing green as I walked up the stairs to take my seat. I had pretty much the same feeling as I stepped into The Hawthorns with Mathew, except well, I was stepping into The Hawthorns. I’ll re-iterate the fact that things were moving too fast. A week back I was in Bangalore building statistical models for FMCG companies.
"YOU MUST BELIEVE ALBION WILL WIN TODAY": Banerjee meets the 'Bomber'
I met Gurdial Singh – a ‘Punjabi Female Baggie’ as she likes to call herself - at the Tommy Glidden media entrance a couple of hours before kick-off. I was there to meet Drew Williams, the Media Manager at WBA. Drew had sent me an email inviting me to the club before kick-off on Saturday after coming to know about my love for the Albion. He wouldn’t have known if it wasn’t for this lovely lady also known as ‘Gurdy’ in the Albion circles. People like Gurdy reinforce my belief that strangers are a chance you should always take. While in Bangalore, I got this message on Facebook and in short it went like “I would like to make your first visit to the Hawthorns extra special.” And there I was in two days’ time standing on the pitch at The Hawthorns, clicking photos and getting my jersey signed by Jonny Evans, Gareth McAuley and Darren Fletcher with Drew taking the pain of introducing me to each and every one of the players. Then something absolutely out of the blue happened. While at the pitch side, Drew received a call on his mobile requesting him to let me know that Tony Brown would like me to come meet him at the media box. The legendary ‘Bomber’ Brown?! Chuffed. As later Gurdy would tell me, on our way to The Vine after the game, Bomber had spotted me from the media box and had asked her “Who’s that kid down there”. She told him my story. “Get him up here” was his response. I broke down in front of him, I got so emotional that I touched his feet. We Indians do that as a mark of respect for our elders. But this was Bomber Brown - a scorer of great goals, an FA cup winner, a League Cup winner, seven hundred plus games for the Albion - yet so honest, yet so humble. He ticked me off a bit for not being sure about an Albion win. He countered “You must believe Albion will win today”. And Oh boy did they not win emphatically. I still have a feeling they did it for me.
I believe everyone went out of their way to make my day a one to remember, and that takes a lot of good heart I tell you. Ian Skidmore, Head of Content at WBA, came across and asked me “What’s your shirt size, I think you need an upgrade.” That kind of scuppered my plans of watching my first Albion game in the first Albion Jersey I had ever owned, but I wasn’t really complaining. Too cool a gift to pass. I also happened to bump into Adrian Chiles, the famous British TV presenter and lifelong Albion fan. I wouldn’t have recognized him if it weren’t for all those Match of the Day shows I used to download as a kid. For a man so experienced in journalism to say that he enjoyed reading my blog, is an accolade I shall always cherish. Then there was Paul Raven, a former Baggies player and club legend. He went out of his way to check if any of the other ex-players were around whom I could meet and get autographs. What a day! Remember, this a Premier League club and these are important people, as busy as they could be because it was a match day. But to do what they did to make my day, I’m sure can only happen at the Albion.
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. There were about ten of us, and each of us took turns to tell others a story that had changed our lives and a longing that we wanted to fulfil. 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 ninety-nine shall be ranked when I’m done visiting all.