A post by Kerry (Kez) Harwood

19 minutes. A number stuck in my head for the last three years. On my hour-long journey home from games, from East London to West, that number was never far from my thoughts. 19 minutes seemed impossible, yet there it was in black and white. My finger traced the tube map, following the planned Crossrail route from Paddington to Stratford. Just 19 minutes under ground and I could be emerging in East London. Dodging half-and-half scarf sellers and Westfield wanderers, I could soon be finding my way to a Pride of Irons pre-match meet-up just 19 minutes after leaving home.

But no sooner had the Lizzy Line been named and a purple addition threaded through an already busy Beck beauty, along came 2020. No football. No London Stadium. No Pride of Irons post-game drinking sessions. But rather than hide away in our self-isolation dens, this pride soon learnt how to WhatsApp, podcast and screen-share it’s way through the pandemic. What started in Stratford as a friendly bunch of misfits, steadily grew into a close-nit group of friends. We learnt about unique tastes in home décor, met family members and furry friends, consoled one another through hard times and recovery, quizzed our way through late-night drinking sessions and plotted our first post-pandemic trip to Hebden Bridge. Without the pandemic, we might still be sharing a cordial handshake and a cold pint after a match, but when we next meet up there will be hugs tighter than a first visit to grandma post-vaccination.

As for many others, lockdown life in London had me dreaming of a life elsewhere. An itchy finger soon had me swiping right on flats in Brighton and Bristol and zooming in on floor plans in Penzance. Yet it was Sheffield that came calling. Much like Ravel Morrison, I saw the steel city as my escape and a chance for a new start. Less like Ravel, my three-hour trip up the M1 was a little more direct (ahem, Birmingham City, QPR, Cardiff City, Lazio, back to QPR, Atlas, Östersund and finally Sheffield United). So my 2020 ended in a city I had never visited prior to packing my bags and setting off up the motorway in my hire van. A city with no open bars or restaurants, no sports events or festivals and no chance to meet anyone new.

Step up Pride of Irons and our weekly Zoom catch-ups. Who needs bars in Sheffield when Amazon can deliver my evening tipples? Who needs restaurants when Just Eat allows me to get delivery like a G? And who needs new friends when I’ve got a Pride of Irons crew waiting in my spare bedroom every Friday night. Whilst not the start to 2021 I had imagined, a warm and familiar little routine has formed that I would now be lost without.

Much is about to change however. Our elderly have been vaccinated, no doubt at it like rabbits with their care home neighbours, whilst we patiently await our turn in the queue. When it comes, life may very well start to return to normal. As far as West Ham is concerned, I long for the day to be part of a real-life crowd that groans and cheers in natural unison, not at the slightly delayed press of a button. I dream of clinking glasses with my Pride of Irons chums, rather than smashing my pint glass against an iPad screen. As my heart swells at the promise of better times, I remember that my season ticket was not renewed and I’m now a resident of South Yorkshire and a 45-minute power-walk from my nearest train station. When football returns, it may well be out of my grasp. As my Pride of Irons buddies make their pre-match meet-up plans, I may well be looking on longingly at a WhatsApp chat that holds no meaning for me. I won’t be waiting outside turnstile J, nor will I be ferociously manning the sofas at Tina’s. An uncertain footballing future is laid out before me.

Or is it? I’m in a new city with a great footballing tradition, split between red and blue. A city in which Paul Alcock was sent tumbling to the ground by a Hammers legend. But the Blades and the Owls are both suffering and a cursory glance at the league tables tells me there’s no joy to be had from switching my footballing allegiances. Were I to try, I’d know my heart wouldn’t really be in it.

No, I’m West Ham through and through. My rainbow flag proudly makes space for claret and sky blue. That itchy finger that once had me searching for flats in Fyfe, now leads me to train times from Sheffield to London. Were it for an Allardyce or a Curbishley, I might not be so keen to journey south. But this high-flying Moyes team has me dreaming of the day I can jump on a train with a four-pack, arriving in St Pancras two hours later. Not only am I feeling ready to dedicate my Saturday mornings to a lengthy footballing commute, I’m now primed to casually mention just how far I’ve travelled to get to the game. Yes, I’m ready to be that fan. The guy at the bar who judges the intensity of your support based on the distance you travel to get home. “Oh, you’re from Upminster are you? Such a hardship! I have to take the sleeper via Inverness and won’t be in Sheffield until late-Spring.”

It’s simply no good working myself into a slump, worrying that West Ham will go on without me. A life in a new city simply means I have to put in a few more hours to get my Saturday reward. If I start saving the pennies, I could even treat myself to a budget hotel in Stratford. It might not be the 19 minutes I’d always dreamed about, but I’ll be more than happy setting off for home the next morning after a hearty Premier Inn breakfast. Instead of bringing home a programme from matches, I’ll have a backpack stuffed to the brim with shower gels and shampoos. If it’s a rainy day and the security have confiscated your umbrella, take a stroll past turnstile J, as there’s a chance I’ll be there handing out my complimentary Premier Inn shower caps. See you in 2021!

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