A fan possessed
Men are said to think about sex every six seconds. Not Adrian Chiles, whose waking moments are dominated by his obsession with West Bromwich Albion. In an extract from his new book, he describes life in the grip of an unrelenting passion for his team
Wednesday July 25, 2007
I love West Bromwich Albion. If West Brom are doing well, I’m good company. I’m a nice colleague, a good friend, a doting father, a loving husband. If, as is more often the case, we’re doing badly, I am none of the above. My whole attitude to life is shaped by the Albion, known as the Baggies. For a start, I am inclined to pessimism. I am lucky enough to have a fantastic job as a broadcaster, but you will never catch me saying anything positive about my career, because to do so would be to tempt fate. I live my whole life with the same feeling I have in my stomach when the Albion are winning 2-0 with half an hour left. In other words, it’s all going terribly well, but it will still quite possibly end in misery.
Not that I have ever let my career get in the way of the Albion. In the spring of 2000 we were seriously threatened with relegation to what was effectively the third division. On a Tuesday evening we played Tranmere Rovers. That day had been quite an exciting one at work. The job of succeeding Anne Robinson as presenter of Watchdog was up for grabs and apparently I was on a shortlist of two with Nicky Campbell. On the drive up to the Hawthorns I asked myself the following question: what did I want more, the Watchdog job or a win against Tranmere? I thought about this for nearly 200 yards of the M40 before deciding that I definitely wouldn’t swap anything for a win that night.
We beat Tranmere 2-0 and Nicky Campbell got the Watchdog job. But I was happy. Never once did I advise myself to be careful what I wished for in the future.
Why do I feel like this? Why am I so obsessed? My brother’s upbringing has been the same as mine, so why doesn’t he feel the same way? He’s still an Albion fan, and he’ll go when he can, but he doesn’t let it blight his life. I wish I could be like him.
On the other hand, I’ve also met people who make me look like a lightweight. People who have more or less not missed a West Brom game, anywhere, well, ever. There are nervous fans and calm fans. Fans who are sure we’ll win; fans who are sure we’ll lose. Some become obsessed late in life; others spend half their lives obsessed, then just stop. When I hear fans chanting at the referee thus: "You don’t know what you’re doing", I often think we should all be chanting to ourselves that we don’t know what we’re doing because I really don’t think we do.
It doesn’t help that because I work on television I’m often recognised when I’m out and about. In the rare moments the Albion slip from my mind, somebody in the street, a pub, a restaurant or in a taxi will raise the subject. The apotheosis of this was in January 2005 when we were bottom of the Premiership and, in all likelihood, would still be come the end of the season. It was a wet Tuesday afternoon and I was walking through Leicester Square in the west end of London when a tramp approached me. He had a determined look about him which had me reaching in my pocket for some money to fob him off with. But, as he approached, something didn’t feel quite right. Instead of having his palm outstretched, it reached up and rested on my shoulder. "Adrian," he said, his eyes full of compassion, "I’m afraid the Baggies have had it this season."
One of the happiest days of my life was Survival Sunday, May 15 2005, when the Baggies played at home against Portsmouth.We needed to win to stay in the Premiership; we also needed all of Crystal Palace, Norwich and Southampton to lose. There is something special about watching football in summery sunshine. It’s either the start of the season when hopes are high or, as now, it’s the sharp end when hopes will finally, at last, be realised (or, more likely, dashed).
For once I’m not nervous. It’s the hope that kills you in football and I lost mine several weeks ago. Because I have so little hope I’m really quite relaxed. What will be, will be. But I can’t have given up completely because when a friend of mine says, with an air of certainty, "It’s not going to happen, is it?" I feel a lump forming in my throat.
My friend Roy Mitchell writes for television. I first got in touch with him because a character called Koumas appeared in the cast of New Tricks on BBC1. We had a player called Jason Koumas and I knew it couldn’t be a coincidence because there were other characters in the show with the same names as West Brom players. I called the office of the controller of BBC1, who called the production company, who unenthusiastically agreed to leave a message for the writer, whose name I had spotted on the credits. I thought, if he is an Albion fan, he’ll call. Roy called almost straight away. "Generally," he explained, "thinking up names is a very boring part of being a writer. I just thought it would be hilarious to name the entire cast after the ’68 cup-winning side. And I often used Albion dates, like the date of that final, May 18 1968, for some murder or some event important to the plot.
"As for the main characters, well, they are all named after the Halfords Lane Stand. James Bolam plays Jack Halford, Alun Armstrong is Brian Lane, and Dennis Waterman is Gerry Standing. Halford Lane Standing," he says triumphantly. "When I first took the script in, they said how interesting the names were and they asked me where I got them from. I told them Halford was just a good English name, Standing was for the character’s nickname, Upstanding, and Lane was as in Memory Lane. Of course that was all rubbish; it was just for the Albion connections."
At half-time, all is going swimmingly everywhere but here. Charlton are beating Palace 1-0, Fulham are 2-0 up against Norwich and Southampton are 1-1 with Manchester United. The trouble is, for the Miracle to come to pass we have to win and to win we have to score, and we don’t look like scoring.
Then our great big earth-mover of a striker, Geoff Horsfield, comes off the bench and scores. We are jubilant, but it reminds me a bit of childbirth in that you think all your troubles will be over when the child is born; in fact, they are just beginning. We were desperate for a goal but now it has happened we have to start worrying about what might go on elsewhere. My stomach lurches all over the place. My God, this really could happen. Norwich are being trounced and Man United are ahead at Southampton. Worryingly, though, Palace have equalised at Charlton. I felt all right five minutes ago. Now I’m in bits: the hope is suddenly really starting to kill me.
But hope evaporates as quickly as it came. I seem to be the only person in the East Stand wearing a radio, so it falls to me to break the news to everyone that Palace have a penalty at the Valley. Everyone looks at me pleadingly. "He’s missed one against Charlton this season," I say, parroting Ian Brown, Radio Five Live’s commentator there. "Scored", I say miserably, a moment later. Everyone looks away.
Here, we then score to no great acclaim. With Palace winning we are going down anyway. Five Live’s commentators at the Valley are making very unpromising noises. "There’s only going to be one winner here," says Steve Claridge. "There’s only going to be one winner there," I say, to no one in particular. Absurdly, I start to feel a bit better again. The hope is ebbing away.
Then a cheer sweeps around the ground. It starts in the Halfords Lane Stand, opposite us, and soon everyone is cheering. The players look at each other and at the crowd. Charlton, against the run of play, have equalised.
Except they haven’t. I know they haven’t because I’m listening to the live commentary. But, ludicrously, desperately willing it to be true, I join in the celebrations anyway, even though I’m listening to Ian Brown tell me no such thing has happened. Soon everyone calms down and a resigned silence falls again. We’re going down.
But then, astonishingly, Charlton do actually score. I jump up pumping my fists and the rest of the East Stand, though suspicious of another heartbreaking false alarm, seem to believe the man from the BBC with the earphones on. It’s unlike any celebration I’ve ever seen or heard. It starts cautiously; builds quickly to something approaching hysteria and then dissipates as we consider the quite awful possibility that, having come so close, one Palace goal now would save them and relegate us.
The next 10 minutes are the longest of my life. I’m crouched in a kind of foetal position, my fingers pressing the headphones ever harder into my ears. I judge that if the worst happens and Palace score, I will simply never recover. With about five minutes to go, the tension becomes so unbearable I crack up: "No!" I scream, "I just can’t fucking take any more of this!"
"What’s happened?" demand about 50 people all at once, the whites of their eyes blazing in the afternoon sun.
"Nothing," I shout back. "I just can’t take this, that’s all."
Hearts breaking with relief, they sink back into their seats.
Our final whistle is blown but nobody celebrates: Charlton and Palace are still playing. The crowd sub-divides into pockets of people crowding round those with radios. Thirty agonising seconds later, that feel as if they go on for hours, the final whistle goes at Charlton. After being bottom at Christmas and winning only six miserable games all season, we’ve survived. Pandemonium. The players jump around hugging each other. Other players in suits emerge from the crowd to join them and the fans start streaming on to the pitch. My friend Andy and I hang on to each other like we’re twins just reunited having been separated at birth.
Everybody hugs everybody else. Most people are in tears. Men and women I’ve never met kiss me full on the lips. Like Pat Cash climbing up to the box from which his father watched him win Wimbledon, I run up to where our directors are sitting. Our chairman Jeremy Peace is looking on, a little bewildered. I know him very well but I’ve never bear-hugged him before. "My God, you’re sweaty," he says.
I then make for Denise, wife of our manager, Bryan Robson. I don’t know Bryan so I can hardly kiss him, but I met his wife at Villa Park a month ago and she’s going to get kissed and no mistake. Smack on the cheek. Then I set about kissing all, and I mean all, the directors’ wives. Some of them seem happy to be kissed by me, others less sure.
Finally, the jackpot: Cyrille Regis, my all-time favourite player. I barely know him but I’m puckering up as soon as I clap eyes on him. And as his partner is by now the only man, woman or child in the soft seats who hasn’t had me slavering all over them, she gets the full treatment as well.
The pitch invasion has been so comprehensive that there’s no grass visible. The celebrations are just starting yet I suddenly feel shattered. I nudge Andy and say, "Shall we go?" He nods. We both feel as if we’ve reached such a peak of absolute happiness that staying would serve no purpose: we simply couldn’t squeeze any more pleasure out of it. "Our work here is done," I say as we walk out. We get in his car and drive off. There’s so much joy in this car that an image of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang flying away comes to mind. We both wonder if we’ll ever stop smiling.
At 2.30 the following morning my six-year-old daughter comes into our bedroom complaining of nightmares. I try to reassure her but I am suddenly seized with panic, a nightmare of my own. Surely I haven’t dreamed one of the happiest days of my life? I check with my wife. "No," she says, even more wearily than usual. "You’re OK, it all happened." My little girl goes off to sleep again. I lie there, willing myself to stay awake so I can carry on going through it all over and over again, but soon I slip into a deep, dreamless sleep.
In the morning I wake up no less elated than I was the night before. I feel really, really happy. It’s not quite as good a feeling as I had when my children were born, but, honestly, it’s not far off.
Summer ends for me on the first of August because it’s in August that the football season starts. I can never understand those fans who miss football during the close season. If you ache for the season to start then you can’t be much of a fan. If you’re truly passionate about your club, if it really does rule your life, you will have loved each precious football-free day of summer. And you will mourn the coming of the new season and the trauma it’s sure to bring. On top of all the other worries you have about your marriage, your children, your work, your health or whatever, you will have to find huge reserves of emotional strength to deal with everything your team throws at you this season.
Men are supposed to think about sex every six seconds. I don’t know if that’s true, but I certainly think about West Brom more than I think about sex. During the season I think about them constantly. In fact, I don’t believe they are ever completely out of my mind.
Whatever else I’m doing, from bathing the children to presenting live television programmes, there’s a bit of my under-sized brain bothering about the blue and white.
Over the summer, though, I manage to forget about the Albion.
My West Brom friends are dear to me but we have no real relationship in the summer months. We occasionally meet, but it never feels quite right. It’s all out of context and confusing, almost embarrassing, like seeing one of your schoolteachers out shopping during half-term.
But now, Saturday August 13 2005, playing Manchester City away, driving up from South Wales where I am supposed to be on holiday with my family, I realise that I’m just dying to see everyone again. The nearer I get to the Hawthorns, the yearning replaces the guilt I felt earlier as I left my wife and kids alone on our family holiday. I hate this obsession as much as my wife hates me for being so obsessed.
I cannot remember the last time we won the first game of the season. The day before last season’s first game I happened to be flying back from Miami. As we taxied for take-off, a bloke sitting across the aisle clocked me and said, in a strong West Midlands accent, "You going to Blackburn?"
"Yes," I said grimly.
"And me," he said, just as grimly.
This exchange couldn’t have sounded any different if we were discussing the coincidence of us both going in for vasectomies the following day.
In the car park at the Hawthorns I join the supporters converging to board the coaches north. Under grey skies acquaintances are being renewed. Neither quiet nor boisterous, they remind me of nothing so much as schoolchildren on their first day back after the summer holidays. Everybody seems to be rolling their eyes at everyone else, saying wordlessly, "Here we go again."
A new coach firm, Johnson’s, has won the contract to transport us this season. Apparently anxious to impress, their coaches are parked not in a straight line but in a geometrically precise, staggered formation. The effect, ludicrously, is somewhat impressive.
I never used to go to away games as a kid and I have lived in London for a long time, so it’s ages since I last travelled on a supporters’ club coach. As we pull away from the Hawthorns, I feel suddenly, unashamedly, profoundly emotional.
We are a small benevolent army. We are together, and being aboard one of this fleet fosters a special sense of belonging. The lady sitting behind me hands out some fruit cake to the man sitting across the aisle from her. "I’ve missed you, Mary," he says.
"I made it myself," she says.
I look at them both ruefully, but no cake is offered to me.
There’s belonging, and there’s belonging.
The man eating the cake is called Dave Taylor. I ask if he misses many games. "No."
"Well, when was the last one you missed?"
"Don’t know. Must be 20 years at least."
I am agog. I often feel that I operate at an absolute maximum of devotion to the Albion, but I am a million miles from an attendance record like this. ‘"You haven’t missed a game, home or away, for 20 years?"
"No," he replies evenly.
Incredulously I look around for other passengers to share my admiration for this amazing feat. Blank faces stare back. It is soon apparent that hardly any of them have missed a single game in 20 years or more.
This is a whole new experience for me. I spend my life with people who look at me with amazement and pity in their eyes at my devotion to the Albion. So it’s decidedly odd to be made to feel rather inadequate, not a proper fan. My fellow travellers aren’t unpleasant about it. In fact, there is kindness in their eyes. It is as if it’s my first visit to a stamp collecting club and I have whipped out my album, of which I’m very proud, and they have shown polite interest before producing huge volumes of their own that dwarf mine.
Alan Cleverley, head of the supporters’ club, leaps to his feet.
"Tea break," one of the regulars explains.
"White, no sugar, please," I say, warming to the whole ritual.
"White, no sugar," Alan says, as he hands me a cup. It feels a bit like I suppose a first holy communion might feel. I think how nicely a slice of Mary’s cake would go with this. I almost say so out loud, but don’t.
My seat at Man City is three rows from the front. To my left sits a little kid and next to him his dad.
The season starts. I suppose I ought to feel a surge of anticipation and hope but, for me at least, those days are long gone. And it seems that most of us here feel the same. It’s a neutral feeling: neither happy nor sad. If, as one, we could vocalise our thoughts at this moment, we would wearily intone, "OK, here we go again, bring it on. There’ll be good bits and bad bits but together we’ll get through it."
The first chant of the season comes from Man City: "Come on, City," they shout together without noticeable enthusiasm.
"Fuck off, City," our fans respond, reflexively, without any real malice.
Other rituals are observed. A corner kick is awarded in front of us. Somebody stands up, so the person behind them has to do so, too, and soon we’re all struggling to our feet. As we do, knees crack and seats slap up with the sound of dominoes toppling. The corner comes to nothing. We sit back down again.
Neither side scores, although both come close. A couple of minutes before half-time, the bloke to my left stands up. "Lucky piss," he explains as he pushes past me.
The match finishes, to our fans’ general satisfaction, nil-nil.
Back on the bus, we pronounce ourselves fairly happy. It’s a point away from home and there is also a sense that it’s a nice introduction to the season: a defeat would have been terribly disappointing and a win too much to ask. Either outcome would have plonked us straight on to the emotional rollercoaster we’ll be on all season. It has been a nice way of easing ourselves in.
In the seat behind me, the man with Mary is eating some pasta out of a plastic box. I say that I haven’t done enough preparation for this trip and next time I’ll be certain to bring along something to eat. Many of them smile and I sit down. Mary taps me on the shoulder and says, "Here’s the last bit of my cake." She does so in a tone of voice that suggests she knows this is what I’ve been after the whole time. The cake tastes good.
I’m back to the communion again: the tea on the way up was my wine and now I’m truly breaking bread with the faithful. I belong in a way I didn’t when I boarded the coach.
· This is an extract from We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, to be published by Sphere next week, priced £12.99. © Adrian Chiles 2007. To order a copy for £11.99 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 8360875.