Football in Bombay? It's just not cricket...

I write from the heat of Bombay (Mumbai since 1995), one of the biggest cities in the world with a heaving population of 13 million.

It’s full of Indians. And plenty of cowboys, including every taxi driver we’ve come across. Walk to any tourist sight and you’ll be pestered non-stop. Fake sunglasses, giant balloons, spices, flowers, fabrics, counterfeit books. Anything.

Professional slum dogs pull at your leg and your conscience with wide eyes and open mouths. It’s easy to be overwhelmed in Bombay, with the very rich and the potless living cheek by jowl.

There are brilliant nightclubs full of Bollywood babes who dance like Shakira, not a mile from slums and vast outdoor laundries. The Indians are as friendly as life is frenetic. 

They are also crazy about sport… as long as it’s cricket.

"Football? Pah" 

The game is king in Bombay, India’s biggest metropolis and the most lauded player is Sachin Tendulka, the little genius. Opus published their giant £3,000, 32 kilo books dedicated to Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Celtic. Tendulka is to have one of his own.

The Indian Premier League’s decision to move games to South Africa because of security concerns is a big story. Mumbai was attacked with a great loss of life last November. We’ve visited the distinctive and still mostly closed Taj hotel plus the Leopold café and seen the gun shots in brick and shattered glass. 

With elections approaching, the Indian government had said that it could not guarantee security which is now a greater concern since the terrorist attacks on Sri Lanka’s cricket team in Pakistan.

A sniper in a baseball cap sits on the roof of our hotel. In front, four security guards hold machine guns and watch the sea. “60 rounds a minute,” explained one yesterday. “The terrorists came from the sea. That is why we watch the sea.”

Hundreds of Indians played cricket in front of them on the beach. Thousands played it on the Oval Maiden in the centre of Bombay. I was invited to join in one game and faced four balls. I didn’t come close to hitting one ball and they laughed at me for being crap.

Football is marginalised in Bombay. Manchester United are used to selling vodka and beer in the tourist resorts like Goa further south, though you do see the odd English football shirt . 

I received an email asking if I could interview Eric Cantona in London this week. I can’t. Nevermind.

And I met a Celtic fan, a Stalybridge Celtic fan that is. They’re a good non-league club and I watched my brother play at their Bower Fold home in 2004.

I remember it well because I witnessed an argument in their busy snack bar. “There’s not 30 in there,” said a pubescent pre-teen lad, whose fluorescent jacket denoted his status as a match-day steward, despite his tender years.

“Yes there is,” replied the shy girl behind the counter, who had just counted the 30 penny sweets into a plastic bag. A queue formed as the contents were duly tipped out and recounted. There were 30. Unabashed, the lad shuffled off to his official duties, immune to embarrassment.

"What do you mean 'you're busy'?" 

Bower Fold is one of the best grounds in non-league football, with four modern stands and cover on all sides overlooked by the craggy west Pennine hills. Football friendly Tameside Council had worked closely with Stalybridge to develop a ground fit for football league status. With numerous junior teams, Stalybridge was a focal point of the community. 

Yet Tameside, the administrative area to the immediate east of Manchester artificially created in the 1970s, also boasts six other non-league clubs playing within a six miles radius.

So this seemingly cosy relationship can provoke envy and ungenerous conjecture amongst fans and officials of fellow Conference north clubs Droylsden and Hyde United, as well as Unibond league Ashton United, Mossley and Curzon Ashton means that no area in Britain has a concentration of non-league clubs playing at such a high level as Tameside.

James Purnell was the local MP. A possible future prime minister, he had taken a full page advert in the programme and a perimeter advertising hoarding encouraging his constituents to contact him. It must have delighted him that the ink used was conservative blue.

Stalybridge’s pre-fabricated social club was like Phoenix Nights, without pretensions.

A six foot tall bird sidled up to me at the bar. Then it pulled its beak back and ordered a pint. It was Ashton’s mascot and it’s supposed to be a robin after the team’s nickname. “You’ve got to start the day with a pint haven’t you?” said the man under the outfit, looking my way.

I took a seat, soon to be joined for company by a man who, unlike the majority supping their pre-match pint, was not interested in the televised darts. He was the father of a Stalybridge player who was a regular for Wales U19s.

He told me about watching Craig Bellamy and Robbie Savage from the age of 14 upwards. He was astonished that Bellamy became a professional footballer.

“Tell me what’s he got?” he asked.

“I’m no fan of Bellamy, but he must have done something right to play in the Premiership,” I countered.

He disagreed. Bellamy was “useless” in his eyes. He knew that his son was a better player. 

I stood with the 60 travelling Ashton fans in the 700 crowd. They were a funny collection, characters much older than the Premiership average.

The Curzon crew 

To them, rivals play three miles away and foreigners are people from the other side of Manchester. When the referee signalled for the teams to swap ends before the game, these visitors shuffle around and stand in the end their side are attacking.

The game was six minutes old when a middle aged man with the disturbed expression sharing the crush barrier to my left had an axe to grind with Ashton’s centre forward and top scorer.

He was an Ashton fan, but the verbal onslaught he unleashed at the object of his rage was brutal. It was if he’d been caged all week and let out of the house to blow off steam for two hours. 

The target of the criticism happened to be my brother. And while he was entitled to his opinion, so was I. After more abuse, I broke in and told him that he was being unfair.

He didn’t agree and we both let fly a few choice words as we debate the point.

“Do you realise that you’ve just had an argument with a man wearing a bubble jacket?” said a mate.

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