The long journey in exile

‘I dunno,’ says the man behind the counter. ‘I’m not from here.’

Here is somewhere in Bromsgrove. I can’t tell you where as I’m lost. And yes, it is my fault. Well, not entirely.

It’ll be all right, I thought. Got plenty of time till kick off and a customer has just walked in the shop. Hopefully he’s local.

I interrupt his snack buying. ‘Hi,’ I begin, wondering how this will go. ‘Can you direct me to the football ground?’

‘Bromsgrove Rovers?’

‘Yeah, them,’ I answer, thinking it’s best not to point out how the team is called Bromsgrove Sporting, but they aren’t actually playing, it’s the other lot, my lot, them who’ve been my lot since my first match in 1987 ….. Worcester City.

The customer gives me directions and then changes his mind. There’s a better route.

‘Go straight up, right up, keep going, take a right, then go until you come to a roundabout, and then you want to …’

What I want to do is remember this helpful man’s directions. Or spot the floodlights. They must be around here somewhere.

I stop at a garage. The worker does his best, but isn’t too sure where the ground is, and the sole customer isn’t local.

And so I keep driving, taking a turn on a hunch, catching a glimpse of a football shirt with blue and white stripes and worn by a teenager.

What a relief. The shirt is a City shirt which means I’ve found it: The Victoria Ground.

Better find a place to park. Britannia Square used to be my spot, back in the day when we had the Lane. I always knew where I was there; how long I could park for, how long it would take to walk, which terrace to stand on, the crash barrier to lean against, the snack bar that always had the shortest queue.

No doubt Bromsgrove has a distant relative of Britannia Square that I could use, only the clock is ticking and the drivers in front seem to know where they’re going, so I follow them into a car park and push coins into a machine.

A kind man lingers and smiles at me. ‘It’s free after seven,’ he says. ‘Sorry, couldn’t tell you in time.’

I don’t mind. I’m at the football, at Worcester City, the team I’ve adored since that Beazer Homes match in ’87 when Mark Shail and Steve Fergusson signed my 25p programme, Paul Moore gave a masterclass in shouting and I had my first cup of Bovril from the Brooke Bond Oxo kiosk.

I also don’t mind as I’ve waited a long time for this.

It’s been 11 years since I moved to New Zealand (thankfully, the excellent work by WCFCTV, text updates and other bits and bobs has helped bridge the gap) and I’ve come a long way.

I’m not referring to the 11,000 miles from my home in Auckland, I’m referring to the distance from Worcester.

Let’s make it 17 miles (roughly, if going from the city centre) which makes for a not so pleasant round trip of 34 miles, which means the City fan who can’t miss a home game in the same way a person who wants to run can’t give up breathing, will have clocked up over 700 miles by the season’s end for league matches alone.

Add a cup run (and we all love those) and the distance is in the territory of John O’Groats to Land’s End.

Oh, and there are away matches too. That’s a lot of miles. A lot of petrol. A lot of money. A lot of energy.

These people, the ones coming through the turnstile when others are tucked up with a duvet, are Worcester City and even if each had a stand, room, suite or executive box named after them in a stadium that others appear so very determined to undermine, then it would still not be enough recognition.

One can only hope that in years to come there will be a roll of honour (I nominate Rich Widdowson to be at the top) recognising those who have fought like warriors for a real home for Worcester, one that is in Worcester, our own ground, protected from cohabitation and contracts, where people can cycle to, walk to, and not have to hurry straight from work to make the kick off because the M5 is congested, and any person asked for directions will be able to give them because they’re going to the match themselves.

One can only hope that anyone who might have ever subverted the stadium project will awaken to what is possible before it is too late and have a vision of a city where floodlights represent faith, hope and sacrifice as a cross does on a church spire; where a stadium nourishes pride and belonging, for just as Worcester should never be without a hospital, it should not be without the life that a stadium gives within its walls.

Back to the match, the one I almost was late for.

Dotted around the Victoria Ground are 286 supporters. At eight pounds an adult to get in, three pounds for 12-16 year-olds, six pounds for concessions and students, and free for under twelves, there might only be loose change when the bills for the week are paid, and bank managers prefer notes, not shrapnel, just as players enjoy a loud cheer when they score.

But the voices of under three hundred people spread around a football pitch can only carry so far, even though the City players did their very best to encourage practise, scoring five goals against AFC Wulfrunians and conceding none, and exhibiting first touches and poise superior to many of their peers in leagues above.

And done with their honest evening’s work, they were applauded off the field by those in the little stand that has seen better days, and by those on the terrace without a roof, and the man turned on the tannoy and thanked people for coming.

Off into the car park we filed and began the journey home through the town that isn’t ours, towards a city that is, where we once were and must be, for being lost and exiled is no life for me.