“I absolutely feel safe about playing in Kashmir,” Kallum Higginbotham stresses on being questioned about security concerns. Born in Salford City, Kallum spent nearly 13 years playing as a forward for several football clubs in England and Scotland. The 30-year-old started his youth career with Salford in 2006, and over the years, he played for several renowned clubs including England’s Huddersfield FC (2012-2013) and for Scottish club Motherwell (2013). From 2016 to 2019, the 30-year-old made 86 first-team appearances for Scottish club Dunfermline Athletic. Then came a surprising career move.
In June 2019, I-League football club Real Kashmir announced the signing of Kallum Higginbotham from Dunfermline Athletic. The decision to travel across the continent to play football in the conflicted city of Kashmir, was not an easy one to make.
“I spoke to the manager David Robertson in the off-season, and his ambition and drive for the club convinced me to make the move. He has been here from the start. He wants to take this club to different places and I feel really privileged to be a part of this,” he says.
The story of Real Kashmir, a small club which was formed just four years ago, further increased Kallum’s conviction in playing for the club. In a small time, the football club from Kashmir grew into a symbol of hope for the residents of the city who came in numbers to watch the club play football last year despite political tensions, as it was shown in a BAFTA winning documentary by Director Greg Clark for BBC Scotland.
“I watched the documentary before arriving in India. It’s always been an ambition of mine to play in a different country, experience a different style of life. It’s not a bad place to do that. In India, it’s been such an experience already and the season has not even started,” he says.
As a father to two small kids, it was not an easy task for Kallum to convince his family members about the move. “It was a tough talk. Leaving my girlfriend with two young children was not the best plan. It was a very tough decision. But after speaking to the manager, my heart was set on being a part of this magnificent journey. Once I started to persuade my partner to let me come out to India, it was a go from there. Since I have arrived, it has nothing but an amazing experience. I just can’t wait for the season to begin.”
During the four-month pre-season with the the football club, Kallum has seen it all. “Before I arrived in Srinagar, I had a different perception of the city. Since I have been here, go down to the hotel, I go down to the lake, and go and get the street food – I have been welcomed by local people everywhere. You do see the army personnel everywhere but it has not frightened me,” he says.
The communication blockade in the summer in the city provided rough times for the Real Kashmir footballers as they were unable to contact their loved ones. Kallum believes the time without phones and internet brought the team closer to each other.
“The communication blockade brought the squad closer together. I have played with a lot of clubs in Scotland and England and this is probably the most closeness I have seen in a team I have ever been involved in. As the gaffe starts when you have phones and internet communication, people don’t communicate with each other,” he says.
“It’s obviously more personal for my teammates who have family members in the area. We all stayed together and we help each other. They supported me when I was unable to communicate with my partner and kids,” he says.
Now with the season set to begin next month, the attacking footballer has his eyes set on proving his mettle and winning the title for the club. “I am not going to stand here and say that we are going to win the league, because I don’t know yet what it holds. But I have not come all the way to India to just to take part in the I League, I have come here to win the league,” he says.
“I want to lift the trophy this season. I am a very ambitious person. I want to win every game. If we do that, I am pretty sure we’ll be able to do that,” he adds.
Despite the tense political climate in Kashmir after the scrapping of Article 370,
Real Kashmir players and team management is confident the club will be allowed to play their home games in the city. Kallum, who is eager to play in front of 20,000 home fans, cannot wait for the season to begin.
“I have not yet experienced 20,000 fans coming to watch a match in my career so far. The first match on 12th against Gokulam Kerala would be a great experience for me personally. I am sure the fans will be out there in numbers, supporting the team. Hopefully, we can give them the win they expect from us,” he signs off.