I know league tables are what it’s all about but let’s get one thing straight before the Armani’s come off: footballers are well qualified. Partington likes to wind the lads up about it but I got six GCSEs so he can’t lay that on us. Okay, my agent Jamil Qazi may have sat a few exams for us but that weren’t my fault were it? The dozy teachers should have been able to tell it weren’t us but if they’re too busy thinking of their summer holidays it’s their problem.
This gormlessness struck us as I looked out of the coach window at the criss-crossing fans. These gawper paupers, with their replica shirts, beer-bellies and dodgy tattoos were the real empty heads. As if spending wads of cash week after week on a bunch of carefree players weren’t enough, they also queue round the block for their Premier League mugs from the club shop. Now, I don’t mind my own head gracing these mugs but I draw the line at them putting their lips on mine; that’s a step too far.
So I were comforted by these debt-boys although, at times, they did get too close for comfort. There were a few of them making faces at the window for a start. One of them rubbed his nose into the glass and his nostrils reminded us of King Kong’s. I remember watching the film with the lads but fell asleep when they nabbed the uptight gorilla from Middle Earth and brought him back to civilisation. It went on for ages.
It were time to get up anyway and move into the aisle. Pearly came over and grabbed the back of my neck to offer encouragement. The skipper were now looking perky after his cancer scare. He got on the keema therapy in no time and were sorted. He also led the whooping and the clapping as the noise increased in the coach. After all, it were our first game in the Premier League, and as Granny Fatima used to say, it were always better to be there at the birth.
Lionel, our driver, revelled in these moments. He acted like a mascot for us on match days and patted every one of us on the back as we got off. The problem were each time his hand hit the back of one of the players, his only strand of hair fell off his shiny slaphead causing him great distress.
‘War of the Roses,’ he shouted. ‘Come on lads, War of the Roses…’
Okay, it weren’t exactly Manchester United v Leeds but we were still crossing the Pennines and that were enough for Lino to adapt his enemy position. This usually consisted of squinting more than usual, acting more suspiciously than a MI5 agent and checking your chip butties regularly to ensure they hadn’t been spiked. Even on the journey home – and a Championship match against Barnsley came to mind – Lino were never convinced that a Yorkie hadn’t shafted him with a dodgy hot dog or light ale.
But just as I were thinking about Lino’s tactics for today’s game, I looked across to the right and saw the man I thought I might never see again. There he were, with his closely-cropped beard, dark shades and casual blazer like a cool sheikh who’d left his robes in the desert.
I hadn’t seen ‘Gerd Mullah’ for four years and were surprised to see him in amongst the gawper paupers. Now, don’t snigger but that were his name. Okay, his real name was Ibrahim but ‘Gerd Mullah’ were his nickname and that were good enough for us.
‘I see you’re travelling in luxury,’ he said, holding a football under one arm.
‘It’s the only coach I can relate to,’ I said. ‘Who’s the ball for anyhow?’
‘It’s from Sialkot. A lot of them end up in the Premier League…so one more won’t do any harm.’
The ball had green stars touching each other on a white background. I grabbed hold of it with my sweaty hands, which were in better shape than his. He withdrew his crooked fingers quickly and put them quickly in his kecks.
‘Hmm…KATMINA 90,’ I said, reading the letters on the ball.
Now, I’d heard of Cat Deeley, Kat Moon and even Cat Stevens – who Abujee banged on about because he’d seen the light – but who the hell were Katmina?
I carefully ran my fingers over the small black letters. He said nothing and drew us closer to him. Obviously, I were used to the cosy clenches, particularly when a goal were scored, but this were the first time he’d put his arms round us. His body felt sharp and bony and I were glad he let go when he did. He then pulled out what looked like a mobile and handed it over to us. He said it were a ‘Nokia 786’ although I hadn’t heard of that model before. I were in a hurry so I slipped it into my Puma bag without much fuss.
‘I’ve been told you’re not living at home anymore?’ he said.
Jesus and Mohammed, I haven’t seen you for ages and now you’re telling us where I should grub and kip. As Partington’s always said footballers need to space to operate and I weren’t getting that at Simpkiss Street. Abujee were more interested in making sure the Raja’s didn’t buy another house in our street – they had four already – and Amejee were hysterical about a terrorist raid swallowing up the whole family so we’d never see each other again.
‘Erm, I’ve moved to Shaw Crescent now…’
He shook his head and it niggled us as much as a ref’s whistle. ‘You should have stayed at home,’ he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. ‘Talking of home…I want to meet up at Starcot Lane.’
‘What for?’ I replied, bouncing the ball on the rough surface. ‘It ain’t the same for us down there.’
‘It’s important…and I want you to bring that ball with you.’
I looked across at my team-mates heading towards the players entrance. ‘Look, I’ve got to get cracking. Aren’t you going to wish us luck?’
Ibrahim smiled and pulled out a light brown, beaded necklace from his immaculate suit jacket. ‘Of course…’ he said, flicking each bead and whispering a few verses. ‘…but stay close to that ball. It’s precious.’
Eminem’s Lose Yourself were our anthem in the dressing-room for away games. Most of us had switched off our i-pods and mobiles and the big, booming sound reverberated around the dressing-room walls. But Pearly were very protective of the stereo. He used to check it for scratches or damage before and after every game and he were proper paranoid in that sense. I suppose it were understandable because the skipper were going through a divorce in which his missus had cleaned out his whole house. He bottled up most of his problems but he did tell us how the divorce had come about, and it weren’t pretty.
He told us that his kids were such big Harry Potter fans that they never wanted to miss anything to do with the speccy wiz, so when the film Miss Potter came out he took them down to the pictures straight away. Pearly thought the film were about Harry Potter’s ‘magical sister’ so they were all real excited when all four of them sat in the cinema. But when the film ended up being about Beatrix Potter, his seven-year-old Christopher went mad and blamed his father for ‘the worst day of his life’. Pearly’s wife agreed with her son and started bickering with her husband in the aisle. A few minutes later the shouting couple started fighting and all the cinemagoers started to watch them instead of the film. The coppers were called and Pearly were blamed. Luckily, he got off as his wife didn’t press charges but I still don’t think he’s recovered.
Thankfully, for the lads, his wife weren’t around today and it just Eminem as I pulled the red shirt off its hook. The hanging shirts reminded us of the halal meat I’d seen at Haji Butchers years ago, although this only came into my head when Partington were having one of his pre-match wobbles. It didn’t happen often but when it did, it seemed the blood had drained from Partington’s neck, so white were his face.
But as Partington walked in, we knew it weren’t one of those days. He’d already given his team-talk and now there’d only be a few words of encouragement. He had a football under his arm and looked around the dressing room. He walked towards the stereo and stopped the music. He then walked into the middle of dressing room and we edged away from each other, eventually standing in horseshoe shape around him.
He moved the ball from under his arm and held it above his left shoulder with both hands. ‘This is your world.’ He said, with firmness and authority. ‘Treasure it, cherish it and savour it.’
Bloody hell, I thought, we’ve been promoted to the Premier League not the Philosopher’s Union. It’s still football with a round ball, goals, players and the like. There’s nothing funny about it. Okay, it may be quicker and more intense but if juicy Julia Roberts can pass for herself in Ocean’s Twelve – and as a bloke with a tash in Sleeping with the Enemy – then I can step up to the Premier League, no sweat.
‘It’s time, lads,’ said Pearly, who’d obviously got the call from the ref.
Now were the time for our last-minute hugs, pats on the back and grunts of encouragement. I looked into the eyes of the ten men round us, one by one: Kraney, Iggy, Rico, Kai, Larry, Mags, Jet, Molly, Lassie and, of course, Pearly. Seven foreign lads and four of us; we were all ready.
Pearly put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Step up to the plate,’ he said, with bulging eyes. ‘We’ve arrived.’
Now ‘Step up to the plate,’ were familiar because it were Abujee’s favourite term when he called Amejee over from the kitchen to ask why his lamb biryani had too much salt. But ‘we’ve arrived’ made us weak at the knees. It finally dawned on us that I were entering a brave new world, and no biryani were going to be strong enough to keep us in the lav rather than out on the pitch.
I headed out into the tunnel and the enemy were already there in their gleaming shirts. Their faces looked more polished than the scrubbers we’d just left behind in the Championship and they all looked straight ahead like a team of safe-crackers ready to pounce on the jewels.
At last, the ref began to stride towards the pitch. I waited for Kai to move and then felt a tingle rushing through my body. The noise of the fans slowly increased as I ran out of the tunnel. The space opened up in front of us and the clicking of studs were silenced as they kissed the turf. The noise transferred to the ears as the green and white strip of pleasure squelched beneath my feet. Partington were right: this were my world.
After watching Match of the Day on my wall-mounted plasma while lying in my bed, I thought I’d get to sleep quickly. But after turning the light off, I kept picturing the dodgy cross I’d put in for Larry and how I should have put it right in front of him. I also had this bruise on my left ankle which meant I had to sleep on my right side. This, in turn, meant I were staring directly at alarm clock on the bedside cabinet which had its digits lit up like a Catherine Wheel. It were a hefty lime green affair from Lahore, which had a little mosque in the middle but didn’t quite do its job because of its wonky hands. I didn’t need it anyhow as my mobile’s alarm were loud enough but Amejee said it were a blessing. Naturally, Partington didn’t agree the one time I used it and were late for training.
At the best estimate, I reckon it were about 1am. So like one of those very important people, I sat up in bed and were about to reach for the bedside phone. I’d had one installed after seeing some crappy Hollywood film, where something major happens in the morning and they actually answer the phone. What knobheads. The last thing I’d want to hear when I’m having sweet dreams – which go on well into the morning – is some dick ringing me for a chinwag. So I used my mobile instead.
‘Hello Jim, how did you think I did today?’ I said.
‘Not one of you lot again,’ he said, wearily. ‘I had Mr Starmer on the phone a few hours ago…’
‘What did he want?
‘The usual, no bad publicity for the team. I wish he’d trust me a little more after all these years.’
Now we’ll get onto Jimmy in a minute but he’s a hack so he’s used to waiting. But Mr Starmer were the chairman and his mission were to ensure the players never forgot the club’s history. It were bad enough attending history lessons with Mr Longthorne at school, with his twirly moustache and skinny leather ties, but Mr Starmer were in a different league. He wrote his own little piece, which were replicated in every match programme, about how his great grandfather Albert Starmer – and his trading partner William Cotterskill – formed the club in 1904. He were eager to remind us that they built the ground for just £400 and also owned the local tavern which became a dressing room for players.
But he were most eager to stress the connection between club and country – and the eyes twinkled whenever he mentioned it. A group of soldiers, returning from the Boer War, actually started to play in 1902 but didn’t have a ground to use. They came up with the name ‘Albion’ and one of them met Mr Starmer in the tavern, who instantly agreed that they should form a football club. They joined the Football League in 1905 and decided that the ground should be called Starcot Lane, as in STARmer and COTterskill.
Mr Starmer liked to bang on about this as their legacy but admitted that shady Arabs and scheming Russians had been offering him millions to takeover the club recently. He said he would ‘always resist a foreign invasion’, although how it worked with his wife Conchita, I weren’t sure. There were also the lurking menace of a breakaway club in the pipeline. Mr Starmer said it were the usual mob of muesli-eating commies looking to create a Havana in the Pennines. They wanted fan ownership plus a number of other demands including bringing back terracing. Now, apart from the fact there’s enough soggy terraced housing around the stadium I know for sure I’d be first in line for the chop if these hippies ever got their yoghurts in the boardroom. Sharing’s all well and good but they’d have me lining up at The Shay Stadium singing Guevara songs in no time. I’ve never been to Halifax and I won’t be going as part of any revolution, that’s for sure.
Jimmy coughed away from the phone. ‘Hold on,’ he said. ‘My balance has gone a little…I’ve got this darned labyrinthitis thing, the room swings around a little…’
‘Haven’t you had it checked out yet?’
‘I’ve been to every doctor except Doctor Zhivago. It doesn’t seem to make any difference.’
I’d never seen the film but Jimmy used it to describe anything that took a long time, although it were clear the Zhivago character now had a new identity. That story took us longer to write than Doctor Zhivago, he used to say. The waiter took longer than Doctor Zhivago to get my pizza and so on until it even reached the duration of bowel movements.
‘Look, it’s late Sid, can’t we talk about this tomorrow? There’s a lot going on round here…’
That just happened to be Jimmy’s favourite line bar none. He always said ‘there’s a lot going on round here’ even if an imam had just grown a beard. It’s true there were a few raids and stuff in and around town but nothing to get worked up about. In fact, in my eyes there were nothing going on round here and it were so boring that I even read Jimmy’s local rag from cover to cover six days a week. Okay, I were now in the Premier League and there’d be a step up in profile and all that but there were still hours on end to kill and there weren’t enough activities to kill them. I wanted some more action; and fast. I could watch Gone in 60 Seconds, The Fast and the Furious and Le Mans on my 50 inch plasma again but after the 18th time, even that hurt my eyes a little.
‘I just want the local perspective,’ I said. ‘I know the Sunday’s will have plenty on it on the morning, but it’ll be good to see what your match report’s like.’
There were a slight pause and a sigh. ‘Okay, hang on, I’ll get my notebook.’
Now Jimmy may have been getting on a bit but he were still a top bloke. His biggest gripe, apart from us waking him up in the early hours, were the problem in the newsroom. He’d been covering games at Albion Town for about 35 years but recently a former Town player had been taken on to write sports columns for the paper. All the lads agreed that these Pundicks were a sad sort who couldn’t wait to ‘get into the media’ and dump on their old pals from a high angle. Jimmy said he were taking over some of his duties and couldn’t string a sentence together never mind a story.
But this were something I would never allow on the pitch. Anybody who wanted to take my left-wing berth off us would be in for a major battle. I’d nobble them in training first and then, if they were still at it, I’d organise Amejee to send over some of her supersonic samosas. Once they’d stuffed a couple of these down their cakehole, they’d have no visions of the pitch; the only place they’d reside in was Botswana, while I got on with the job of passing, creating and scoring.
It’s true, however, I were feeling slightly guilty about calling Jimmy at this ungodly hour. So I looked up at the three framed pictures hung on the wall above the bedside cabinet. One were taken just after I’d signed professional forms for Town in which I’m heading the ball back and forth to a gleeful Ibrahim. In the second, I’m standing outside the Evening Chronicle’s office with Jimmy who’s holding up a front page of the paper headlined: ‘Asian star prepares for top’. And then there were Amejee and my sister Shazia standing beside us outside the ground on the day we secured promotion.
‘Okay, then here goes,’ said Jimmy, clearing his throat.
He always did a good job did Jimmy and I expected another smooth performance from him. Whenever I read his match reports, there were always something new I picked up. Although the time I raised my little finger to a kid in the Billy Moss End weren’t quite what I had in mind.
‘Flying winger Sadiq Karim…’
‘Whoa, hold on there.’
‘Can you make it ‘Sid’ from now on?’
‘Of course, but we did have ‘Sadiq’ all last season. It has been our style.’
‘Aye, but I prefer ‘Sid’.’
‘Fine, but it’ll be out of my hands, as most things are nowadays,’ said Jimmy, in weary fashion. ‘The sports editor will change it.’
Now let’s clear up this nickname shit up once and for all. I need to be called ‘Sid’, got that? I’m integrated, okay? I am a complete and utter convert to the ways and perversions of this tatty little island. It’s been good to us: it’s brought us Big Brother, Bernard Manning and Budgens. Who else can say that? Not Saddam or Osama for sure. If they were so integrated why did they getting bombed so often? It’s obviously not what they do but their names. You just wouldn’t dream of calling them Saddo or Ossie because they’re just not one of the lads. Sorry boys, but that’s the way it is.
‘Flying winger SID Karim…’ said Jimmy, in a firmer tone. ‘…made history on his Premier League debut but his team still went down in a feisty clash.’
God that felt good. It were always special to hear your name at night.
‘The 22-year-old helped Town get back into the game with an assist for Kaijah Tete’s equaliser…’ Jimmy paused. ‘I thought I had the rest,’ he said. ‘It’s all a bit scrambled. That’s going to have to be it for now.’
The line went quiet for a moment but then I heard some shuffling in the background.
‘You’ve managed to wake Emily too,’ said Jimmy. ‘But I suppose she’s been to used to it recently with these blasted anniversary preparations. She’s down in the kitchen now.’
‘Can I come round for a cuppa then?’
‘Sorry, but no Karim please, bye.’
‘Hold on, hold on…’
‘Yes, it’s nice to know I have more years of marriage than you have goals. Now bye.’
I put down the receiver and felt better. But, as I looked again at the pictures on the wall, something else were brewing. Ibrahim’s headed ping-pong with us were warm and sweet. He had his arms outstretched for balance, his eyes looked to the heavens and the ball floated above his forehead. The hypnotic eyes and joyous expression completed the graceful image.
But that weren’t the Mr Mullah I saw on the first day of the season. No, it weren’t his double either because that kind of vision came after a match not before. It were more like a change of character, that kind of thing. ‘It’s precious’ what the hell did that mean? All balls are precious, aren’t they? Whatever it were, he’s still the man. Nothing’ll ever change that.
Something had gone down at Shazia’s workplace. Like a brick or two. She wanted us to come down straight away and I reluctantly agreed. It weren’t as if I had any problem seeing my sister: in fact, it were nice to see her more times than the FA Cup Fourth Round, but Hassetts were in town and that were one place I liked to avoid.
That street, however, seemed to have its own problems. A betting shop next door, called Rod’s Odds, were the source of much of it. Perhaps a couple of witch doctors lived in the cellars beneath those shops because someone were always getting shafted. It used to be one of the Jimmy’s favourite haunts but his relationship with the owner Rod Vasey went belly-up after a dispute over a bet.
Jimmy had put a wager on us to score the first goal against LutonTown. And this I did with a rasping shot from 22 yards. The shot, however, took a slight deflection and Rod said he couldn’t give Jimmy his winnings because it were an own goal. IT WERE NOT AN OWN GOAL. The Football League gave the goal to us but Rod wouldn’t have it. The two men haven’t spoke to each other since.
So after parking my blue Audi R8 in the alleyway at the back of Blakeley Street, I pulled down my black Lacoste beanie hat and headed round to the front of the shop.
I were a bit wary of leaving the car out back for too long because it were like a second home to us. It’d recently been fitted with Playstation 3 and a red, blue and white interior to fit in with the club’s colours. It had a DVD system on its dash and my top ten flicks were now in the car rather than at Shaw Crescent. Watching Days of Thunder while bombing down the M62 were nearly as good as scoring at the Billy Moss End.
But as I turned into Blakeley Street, there weren’t much style or speed to go round in this dive. The high, hulking chimney of Lings Mill were down the other end and it were like a huge, erect elephant trunk doused in grimy red-brick paint. Pity, the elephant were always aroused: it needed to come down.
As I got closer to the shop, I realised Shazia were sat on the entrance step with her head down and her arms folded. I walked towards her but felt some glass crunching underneath the sole of my Puma trainer. I raised my foot and picked off the glass into my hand. The shop door were partly open and I could see a big piece of cardboard resting vertically against it where the window had been smashed. She looked up at us in her Hassetts uniform of green T-shirt and black trousers. Her dark brown hijab seemed to be tied a little tighter than usual. She’d only taken up the hijab recently and it didn’t really bother us. It were as though she were more of an amateur boxer now with her head covered rather than a pro. It always spoiled the enjoyment of the bout and that’s how I felt when I went toe-to-toe with her.
‘So who did it then?’ I asked. ‘
‘What are you sitting out here for anyhow?’
She looked at us with disdain. ‘Don’t ask stupid questions…’
Shazia were a bit like that. Don’t leave the teaspoon in the sugar; don’t nick my chips but most of all, don’t watch Hollyoaks.
She got up from the step and walked into the shop. I followed her in and knew where all this were heading. She had those pussy-cat, guilt-ridden eyes ready to pry into my soul and steal the stash that she wanted.
‘I need money, Sadiq,’ she said, walking behind the counter.
‘Who’s been beaten up now?’
She turned around and looked beyond us.
‘No-one’s been beaten up, but I need it to get the group off the ground.’
‘What that stupid Sufferer Jets?’ I sniggered. ‘The only Jets I know are New York?’
It were true that the tears of that early World Cup exit before the tournament even started were too much to take for a five year old. Abujee were laughing his head off at the time but I still stayed up to watch some of USA 94. From that day on, I were hooked and couldn’t wait to go to America one day. I managed to get down there a couple of years ago on a short pre-season trip but when I landed in JFK airport I were asked by one of the officials if I was a Mars-lim. I looked at Mags next to us because I didn’t understand what he were asking us. So he asked us again and I were about to jokingly say I were Jupiter or something, but I chose the safe option and said no. Now this guy looked like he had KKK sandwiches for breakfast and he asked us one last time. I said no again and he took us away to a small room. They then questioned us for hours about the Koran, 11-9 and Gee Hard. I told them I were aware of Bruce Willis in Die Hard but that were about it. In the end, after 12 hours, they let us go and I joined up with my team-mates in New Jersey.
So the Americans have a special place in my heart but Shazia would have been straight in the slammer if she’d been questioned like that. I wouldn’t mind that KKK consumer coming down here and telling her how it is.
She picked up a notepad and pen from the counter. ‘So can you or not?’ she asked, checking the items of stock in the counter window. ‘Emily’ll be here in a minute.’
Emily, Jimmy’s wife, would probably want to know why her shop was being attacked so I could understand Shazia being a bit jumpy.
‘Get us a pie first.’ I said.
‘Do I get the cash or not?’
‘Don’t give us jip, I’ve just handed some out.’
‘Yes, but that was for a great cause. You should understand that he went to Mecca because he wanted to and he had to. You know what he suffers from.’
And I suffer from having to deal with hangers-on, gawper paupers and most of all, family members who cream as much cash off us as they can. Yeah, I had a few thousand to spare – perhaps a bit more – but surely I’d earned the right to waste it on Giorgio Armani, Playstations and HDTV.
‘I know you do a lot for charity at the club and that kind of thing,’ she said. ‘But this is important too.’
This were the clincher and, at last, a good deed of mine had been recognised by a family who hadn’t spent enough time at Starcot Lane. If they did, they might realise I’d found another family now.
‘Okay, that’s fine. Just tell us how much you need. How’s Noddy and the kids anyhow?’
‘Do you have to call him Noddy?’
‘It’s what he does best.’
Noddy, aka Nadeem, were Shazia’s husband and had a habit of nodding off on the rare times he actually engaged in conversation. On most occasions, however, he weren’t around. If you were at the house, he’d be at the mosque, if you were at the mosque, he’d be at the house and if you managed to have a person stationed at both places, he were always in between.
I straightened my beanie hat and prepared to leave. ‘Oh one more thing…did you know Ibrahim were back?’
Her cheery demeanour suddenly lost its zest. Her eyes wandered away from my face and danced around frantically.
‘When did he get here?’
‘He were at the game. We’re meeting up tomorrow after training…Didn’t you see him at the game?’
Shazia didn’t answer and walked away towards the back door.
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