(Note: This post was written in 2014, and for the most part not been updated.)
One of my travel mantras, taken from Rick Steves, is to try and become a “temporary local.” In the case of my English soccer tour, I take that to mean “temporary fan.” And when seeing a game West Bromwich Albion, I had a chance to go all-in on this practice.
Birmingham, A Fine Base of Operations
First, let me introduce you to Birmingham – and for the Yanks reading this, it’s really “Bir-ming-um.” I knew nothing of the town before my trip, except that it’s home to two teams currently in the Premier League: West Bromwich Albion (the w is silent, by the way) and Aston Villa. I also knew there was another club in town, Birmingham City, currently in The Championship, which is the second division of English football.
I also understand that all three of these teams really hate each other. And when local teams play each other, that’s called a derby, which for some reason is pronounced “darby.”
What I failed to really grasp was the number of other teams pretty close to Birmingham: Stoke (Premier League) is less than 50 miles away away; Wolverhampton (currently in the Championship) is on the edge of town and was in the Premier League just a couple of years ago; Coventry City is officially just 23 miles away but is currently playing 54 miles away because of problems with their stadium; Walsall (League One) is 12 miles away; Leicester City (Premier League) is 43 miles away, and Shrewsbury Town (League One) is 47 miles away. There are probably others, but you get the idea.
So Birmingham would be an excellent base of operations for a soccer tour, especially if you want to get away from the touristy madhouses of London and Manchester. It’s also an amazingly young city, with something like half its population under 30, and extremely diverse ethnically. And its the second biggest city in England after London.
In fact, Birmingham is thought to have contributed to the world a style of curry known as a balti, and started selling it in meat pies at football matches. I was told often that I should have a “proper balti” while in Birmingham, and a “proper balti pie” at a game.
Here’s a shot of a market I checked out downtown, and a pile of meat pies. I can’t imagine they’re too good, since the big ones are only one pound!
For reasons of money and connection, I decided to use Couchsurfing.com for my run to Birmingham. For one thing, it’s free, and for another, you will certainly meet locals, since you’ll be sleeping in their homes while they are there. In fact, I came to find that many people on Couchsurfing sleep with their hosts, but I have no experience with this as I completely lack (A) availability (B) skill in this regard and (C) looks.
Anyway, my hosts, Jac and Kirstie, first cooked me a fantastic tapas dinner and then introduced me to my first-ever West Bromwich Albion fan, an electrician named Spike. And he, in turned, introduced me to one of my favorite traits of English people: self-deprecating humor.
First he said that during West Brom games you can smell bread from a bakery down the road, then added, “It’s the only thing risin’ ‘round ‘ere!”
Next he said their stadium, The Hawthorns, is the highest above sea level in the league: “The air is thinner,” he said, “which is why we’re always kickin’ the ball over the crossbar into the seats.”
I really love the English, especially when I can understand what they’re saying!
He also made a call and arranged a ride to the game; now we’re getting local! And he said just meet at the Prince of Wales Pub down on the corner at 7. Now we’re getting English!
The True Fan is Met
Jac walked me down to the pub at 7, and since I don’t drink I got myself a ginger ale. This, by the way, always confuses English bartenders because I don’t want anything in it – just ginger ale. I guess it’d be like ordering tonic water or something. The first time this happened, the guy asked what I wanted in it, and I said, “Like what?” And he said, “I dunno – whiskey?”
“The Prince” is a cool place, a traditional pub with plenty of ales, no food, and a (now fake) fireplace in the main room. They’ve got poker games in the back, as apparently all of England is addicted to gambling. You can even bet at the games!
Spike introduced me to Nick, David, and somebody else whose name I never got. Spike said Nick “knows all about West Brom” then told Nick I was here to learn all about football. The first thing Nick said to me was, “Here’s something to know: Don’t follow the Albion!” And we’re off.
I sat down and told him about my book project, and then asked about the boing boing. See, West Brom fans are famous for doing this boing-boing thing. Here’s a video of it I found on Youtube:
Spike had said it was because the Albion were always going up and down in leagues, but Nick told a better story:
It was about the 1992-93 season, and we were away to Wickham Wanderers in the FA Cup. It was a tiny little ground and a long journey to get there, maybe three hours. Well, when the Albion scored, there were these young guys, maybe 50 of ‘em, and they’re jumping up and down, wavin’ their arms, and going “boing boing.” I didn’t know what to make of it, and figured it’s just young lads having a bit of fun.
And I thought that was the first game they did it. But I heard later it wasn’t; it was the Cup game before it. And the story I heard was, in the coach on the way to the ground, there was this young lad who’d had a few pints, and he had his headphones on playing this house music, you know, with the pounding beat. And he’s bouncing his head up and down going “boing boing.”
Well, the other lads started doing it to mock him, ya know, taking the piss out of it, and they come off the bus doing it, “boing boing,” and when the Albion scored in that game, they started doing it in the stand. And it bloody stuck!”
He went on to tell me about the days when a regional rail pass could get you to so many games in the area (the several teams above and some others I forgot) and about going from terraces to all-seaters really changed things. See, stadiums here used to have large sections with no seats, but that got a little dangerous and rowdy, and then 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death in a game, after which a big report called The Taylor Report suggested doing away with the terraces. This and the general modernization of stadiums in the last 20-30 years has reduced rowdiness, as well as seating capacity.
It’s pretty clear to me that, for many older fans, it’s taken something pleasurable out of the game, as well. Nick said he’s been to The Hawthorns with 46,000 people there, but it holds barely half that now. David said he remembered being picked up by his dad and lifted over the turnstile, which was fine with everyone. People would have the same spots on the terraces, but you could stand with whoever you wanted, sit up on the wall in front if you were a kid, or you’d bring a beer box to stand on if you were short.
Clearly the game is safer now, but the look in these men’s eyes tells me perhaps it’s a bit less fun, as well.
I also asked Nick to explain West Brom’s nickname, “Baggies.” He said there were two theories on that one. One is that in the old days, guys would come off work from the ironworks and forges – Birmingham was a major center of the Industrial Revolution – and they wouldn’t bother to take off their protective baggy clothing. The other theory is at some point all the other clubs went with “proper short pants,” but West Brom didn’t. Who knows which one is right?”
And finally, that word Albion. Apparently it’s an old term for England, and several teams use it in their name, including Brighton and Hove Albion.
Off to the Ground!
We piled into the car, and off we went to the game, with Nick following the most elaborate system of back roads and residential streets I can imagine, and me always thinking we’re about to have a head-on collision since they drive on the other side of the road here. After we got off the main drag, the streets were dark, with nothing going on, and Nick just kept making turn after turn after turn — clearly a man who has does this many times! We were going through the old industrial area and passed the Soho Works, an important 18th Century factory in the history of the industrial revolution.
We drove by the gate to the Soho Works, and there’s really nothing left of the works I am sure. But the walls and gate are massive, and you can just imagine what it must have been like when this whole area was throbbing with energy, steam, filth, and people. They said this happened in West Bromwich because this is where some geniuses were doing experiments (get their names) and also because it’s centrally located, there’s coal, and there’s canals that connect them to the rest of the country. And, in fact, the club was founded in 1878 by factory workers from the area.
We found free parking on the street about 10 minutes from the ground – another thing I just love about English soccer – and walked over. I had bought a 25-pound ticket in the fifth row but went to sit with my new mates instead. What’s interesting about the ground is that the ends are bigger than the sides, and the smallest side by far is the west stand where the dressing rooms and TV cameras are. I think this stand was built around 2001, but the ground is original. For you Porltanders, it’s very much like Jeld-Wen Field, if the south and north ends were bigger by a few thousand seats each.
West Brom is proud to be one of the “Original 12” clubs that founded the Football League in 1888, and Nick and the guys said they don’t mind Everton too much because they’re also from the original 12 and they support their team no matter what. “But they have a shit ground,” David said. He meant for views, with all the pillars that block the view at Goodison Park in Liverpool. It does have a church in it, though!
They also said visiting fans like The Hawthorns because they get a good view in the end, and they aren’t stuck in the corner like at a lot of places. “Plus they usually win here,” he said. Nick said his favorite away ground is Craven Cottage, for the park you walk through to get there and the nice Hammersmith neighborhood and the River Thames right behind the stand. I said it’s probably also because they usually win there, and he said, “No, we usually lose there!” It is very English to be basically pessimistic.
Nick seemed to know a lot of people around the seats; he has a season ticket and knew I could sit with them because the seat I was in was no longer a season ticket, and usually it would be empty on a Monday night game, unless it’s against a really big team.
The West Brom people clapped quite a bit for Romelu Lukaku, who played here last year and did well. He was on loan from Chelsea and is now loaned out to Everton. Then they started cussing him like a mangy dog, since he’s with the enemy now.
The Everton fans really sang a lot and packed their whole section. To me, the Baggies didn’t sing as much. One thing they did, I think, was yell/grunt “g-wan!” (go on) when a guy did something good. It was tough to pick that one up.
They did follow a fine tradition, which is to sing abusive songs about their hated rivals, even when they aren’t playing them. The fans in the end started up “Shit on the Villa” a couple times, and that got folks up. They also sang “Ole, ole ole ole! Bepe … Bepe!” for their new manager, Bepe Mel, a Spaniard who by the way barely speaks English.
One laugh was when the PA guy announced would (somebody) from Spain please speak with a steward, then added “He’ll be wearing an orange jacket.” This cracked everybody up, then he did it again in Spanish, including jacketta naranja, and this cracked everybody up even more. Lots of jokes about “Yeah, go and see Mister Naranja!”
West Brom were also doing the same “greatest team the world has ever seen” as Arsenal, and Spike said that’s a common one. They also had something about “Bepe’s Blarmey Army.”
Oh yeah, the game.
I do go on about the setting, but it’s what I came here for. I love the game, but I adore the culture. Here are the teams coming out for the first half:
Everton started off “the brighter,” but West Brom were starting to “come into the game,” which is English footy speak for “stop playing like shit.” But Everton scored first and then their fans really started singing, in particular the goal-scorer: “Ooo, Kevin Mirales!” Spike and Nick went a little comatose for a while.
Whenever West Brom threatened, which is to say actually crossed midfield with the ball and any amount of “space,” the crowd would roar and Spike would lean in and grab me like he couldn’t stand the excitement. God knows what would have happened had they scored! At the same time, whenever Everton looked like they might do something, all around me was “Oh my God” and “Stop ‘em lads!” and a feeling of real terror. It’s pretty intense over here.
It was 0-1 at the half, and things were a bit somber. The fellas have a traditional meeting place at halftime, so we went there. Nick introduced me to a couple other people, and they seemed charmed by the idea of what I was up to. But I was thinking about my real seat. I had spent all of 25 pounds, about $45, for a seat in the fifth row. Basically, when I watch English games on TV, I see the seats right down in front and think, “I wanna sit there!” So I did. And for the second half I said bye to the fellas, and headed down.
Another thing I soon learned about these old grounds: it’s really cramped! The guys next to me never said a word or acknowledged me, and it took me a bit to feel even semi comfortable. I had to hunch my shoulders and sit almost sideways, but the view was intense:
There were also a lot of kids in this area. Jac told me they tend to do that: “Put the families down below and the mad heads up top.”
Here’s a little video clip from my seat for effect:
I could hear the players yelling at each other, and the fans yelling at the players – like somebody calling Leighton Baines a “gay boy” or just calling somebody else “shit” or firing up their own guys – but couldn’t see the runs and passes at all. I prefer it higher up, actually. As Spike said later, “You can see the players but not the play.”
West Brom were better in the second half and tied it up on a nice header. The crowd went nuts, of course, and there was even some boing boing around my seats:
On the very last kick of the game, Everton put it in, and their fans went nuts, thinking they’d won. But then everybody noticed the linesman’s flag was up for offsides, so the West Brom fans immediately switched from “holy shit” to “Ah, you’re a buncha fools, cheering for nothing!”
Back to Town for a Proper Balti
On the way back, there was some chatter in the car about the game. A lot of it was detail stuff I missed about players and positions and tactics. We also experienced a funny “tradition” (I’m told) of Spike taking a call from somebody and recapping the whole game into the phone. When he was done we told him he had pretty much wrapped it up.
They dropped me and Spike off back at The Prince, shook hands all around, and I thanked Nick and David for a nice evening. We all agreed it was a fair result, a point’s a point, and then off we went. Spike ducked into The Prince for a game of poker, but I was done.
Jac and Kirstie, bless them, had gotten me a lamb and spinach balti for after the game, and it was an awesome way to come home. All in all, a fine evening of being a temporary Baggie.
Back on the Rails
The next morning I would head off to London to see a game at West Ham, and before I went, I would finally get that proper pie: in this case a Cornish Pasty with some “wedges” at Birmingham New Street Station.
Then I would roll through the English countryside, coffee by my side, laptop on my lap, and sweet memories of football boing-boinging in my head. Ain’t nothing finer.