The match was broadcast at 9am in the morning where I live in the US. My kids were playing in the other room while I sat in my favorite chair, in my bathrobe and slippers sipping coffee, hoping and praying. Ahmed Hegazi’s header gave me such a lift. But after that third Southampton goal off that free kick from James Ward-Prowse I headed upstairs and away from the TV.,
It wasn’t that I couldn’t watch anymore, it was that I felt that I shouldn’t watch any more. I didn’t doubt the team so much as I doubted myself. I showered and got dressed feeling like I didn’t have enough faith. I missed Salomon Rondon’s goal while I sulked.
How is it that I, an American, am a West Brom fan? I’ve been asked so many times that I’m not sure that I tell the story the same way twice anymore. I can list all of the peculiar reasons why I settled on West Brom, but the truth is it just felt right. I love my club, if I’m allowed to call it mine.
I’ve always know in my heart and gut that I’m on the edges of Baggie fandom. I wasn’t born into it. I have no ties to the Black Country and hardly any Anglo-Saxon heritage. I once spent a night in Birmingham, but I only ended up there by accident trying to get to Salisbury while traveling as a college student. But that’s as close as I’ve ever gotten.
How am I a West Brom fan? I’m a convert. A tourist. A poseur. A gate-crasher. I’ve come to believe that I will forever have to contend between wanting to prove myself as a true supporter while knowing that I could never fully prove myself as such.
As I wrestled with my feelings of doubt while the match against Southampton dragged on, I remembered how, when I was choosing a club to follow, a close friend—raised in London and a QPR fan since childhood—had cautioned me not to be shallow and just pick one of the big clubs as so many Americans have done. Pick the right club, he told me, but be prepared for as much agony as there is ecstasy. “And remember, it’s for life,” was his final counsel. And so I picked West Bromwich Albion.
Supporting a club like West Brom in America is lonely business. There’s no one to share my joy when things are looking up or to shoulder the burden when it’s rough going. I could easily just give it up or switch over to another club, couldn’t I? I wear my jersey mostly by virtue of my credit card and the magic of the internet. Only in my dreams—or if I hit the lottery—could I imagine ever making my way to the Hawthorns to see a match in person. It would be easier to watch the big clubs on regular TV, while I’m left to watch most of the West Brom matches streamed through the internet. I have to hunt for news and articles online. I listen to West Brom podcasts while cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. I do it all hoping that somehow I’m making a contribution; hoping that somehow I’m a part of it.
In the back of my mind I always felt like the true West Brom faithful, those who had really cheered the club through the highs and low would not secretly wonder if my faith wouldn’t give out eventually. Oh, I have the convert’s zeal, but where shall I be when hardship and tribulation come? The rare moments when I’ve connected with a true West Brom fan online, I quietly worry that they view me with some suspicion thinking that someday I might someday become a deserter.
Maybe it’s that I’m a bit embarrassed to say that football came along when I really needed it. Something was missing from my life and that something was football. I’m an unathletic American who never played any sport much less football. I’ve only ever followed American sports half-heartedly. But with football? It was different, and it’s been different. Football changed everything. Football gave me a joy and fulfillment that I hadn’t felt before.
West Bromwich Albion are the embodiment that joy and fulfillment. I’ve come to love football in a way that I’ve not really loved anything before. I love the Baggies like I’ve never loved a team before. West Brom make me feel like I belong to something.
It’s the story. That’s what it is. It wasn’t told to me since my youth. I’ve had to learn it on my own. I’ve had to research it and catch bits of it here and there. From folklore about the Strollers to the rise of the proud working-class club and founding member of the FA. Through the legends of Astle and Brown, and the footballing heroics and social justice pioneering of Batson, Cunningham and Regis, to the struggles of the 80s and 90s. From the Boing-Boing days to the battling underdog of the Premier League. A club that has had its trials as of late, a club that is overshadowed and overlooked, but a club—a proud club—that keeps on fighting. That’s the story.
It’s a great and wonderful and powerful story. Is it my story? I have no claim to it. And yet, I believe in that story. It’s a story that continues to write itself even now with every moment of satisfaction and every disappointment, and all the nail-biting tension in between. What else could explain the tears in my eyes at the end of both the Southampton match and the FA Cup match against Liverpool? I believe in that story in the hopes that I might somehow be worthy of it, poor sinner that I am.
All I can do is continue to keep the faith.