Tales From An American Away Day

MLS All-Stars vs. Chelsea : 25 July 2012.

It was game day in Philadelphia.

The Chelsea faithful had traveled down by buses, trains and automobiles from New York and were awaiting the third game of the US 2012 Tour. After the rather average performance by the team against Paris St. Germain, we were all hoping for a better showing against the MLS team in the All-Star game in nearby Chester, a small town to the south, which plays host to the Philadelphia Union team. All of us were adamant that the patchy support at Yankee Stadium would be trumped by some loud and loyal singing from the cramped corner segment of PPL Park, too. In this scenario, less would definitely be more. There would be more passionate fans in a tighter area. It just had to be a winner. It was a theme that resounded throughout meetings with fellow fans in Philly.

However, NYC was still on my mind; my troubled mind. Personally, I was still trying to get to grips with what I had witnessed in NYC. I had seen Chelsea play in Yankee Stadium and yet I was somewhat unsure of the whole experience. To be truthful – and I always knew this – I was still missing old Yankee Stadium. Sure, the record books will show that Chelsea played at the shining new edifice in the South Bronx, but deep down I was struggling to rationalise the reasons why I felt it was so odd to be a spectator in the new place.

I guess the facts speak for themselves. Between May 1990 and June 2008, I had seen 23 Yankee games in old Yankee stadium. Those memories will never be erased. The Mattingly home run in my first-ever game, a couple of magnificent wins against Boston, the first ever Yankees vs. Mets series in 1997, a David Cone master class, a Jorge Posada grand slam…Paul O’Neil, Wade Boggs, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez…Derek Jeter…Mariano Rivera.

I am so grateful that I chose the Yankees as my team because I truly felt at home in the tight passageways beneath the towering upper deck of that historic ballpark on River Avenue. The place will always be with me. I guess it was typical New York; grimy, claustrophic, rowdy, monumental.

The new stadium just doesn’t thrill me in the same way.

So, there was all that floating around inside my addled head. For a day or so, I was also rueing the fact that I never really had the chance to say a proper farewell to Roma, Vanessa and Shawn. The plan was for them to meet us down at Legends after the game, but they got caught behind some horrendous traffic and so decided to head up to Roma’s brother’s house in Massachusetts instead as time was moving on. There would be no hugs for them all. It left me a little sad.

However, after the adrenalin-filled action of NYC, Philadelphia was proving to be much more relaxing. The four of us were certainly enjoying our fantastic apartment right on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. From our balcony, we could see the Rocky Steps to our left and the City Hall to our right. The apartment was so big that we had to text each other to communicate. The bedroom had a different zip code to the kitchen. The rooftop pool was a fantastic extra. Philadelphia was superb.

This was my fifth visit to the City of Brotherly Love and I joked that it was “typical Chelsea” that I keep getting pulled back to the same cities in the US as the team does during European competitions; how many times have we visited Porto, Valencia, Rome and Marseille?

Although I would class NYC as my favourite US city, Philly is rapidly becoming a bit of an obsession. I mentioned to a few Chelsea fans that my great great grandparents lived in the city in the middle of the nineteenth century – after getting shipwrecked off the coast of Newfoundland – before returning back to England. My great grandmother was born in England, but at least one of her siblings was born in America. My personal knowledge of this slice of my past is rather sketchy, but my mother always wanted to visit Philadelphia on the back of this story. So, in 2010, my mother and I spent a very memorable week in the city. It is a week I will never forget. On several occasions, I trembled when I realised that Benjamin and Barbara White may have walked the same steps in the 1850’s.

In 2012, Philly was treating me well.

On the Monday, Captain Jack had taken a half-day off work to show a few of us around his adopted city; it was a marvellous walk through a few blocks of the historic centre, ending up with a cheese steak at the legendary “Jim’s” on South Street. This was followed by an equally wonderful visit to see the Phillies defeat Milwaukee 7-6. The others were feeling tired and headed home when the home team were 6-3 down, but I stayed the course and was rewarded with four runs in the bottom of the ninth. This was my fourth Philly game in the city and although the Yanks are my team, I did let my mind wander a little and wonder if I should really have chosen the red of Philly over the navy of the Bronx in lieu of my own personal history.

Nah, what am I thinking?

Everyone knows that Randolph Axon once lived in a little tenement off Grand Concourse in the Bronx in the first few years of the last century.

“I hadda come back to England see. Da police were on my tail and I hadda run.”

Good old uncle Randolph.

On the Tuesday – a really lazy day – we were lucky enough to meet some of the players as they boarded the coach for a practice session outside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, overlooking the City Hall.

We were memorably tipped-off about the players’ hotel on the Monday when we were returning to our hotel. A cab slowed down and none other than Andy Wray shouted over to us. His first words were not about Chelsea, though. Typical Andy; he pointed to a nearby restaurant and shouted –

“That place does great food.”

Welcome to Philly!

Our good fortune in meeting the players reminded me so much of my time in Chicago in 2006. I still rate this as my favourite CFC trip to the US, despite our 1-0 defeat and despite it being the only game of the trip. It was, quite simply, a perfect few days in the Windy City. On the very first night, myself, Roma – plus her daughters Vanessa and Jenny – and my mate Chris met virtually all the Chelsea players outside the team hotel, no more than 300 yards from our hotel just off Magnificent Mile.

On this trip, however, I became more integrated with the fans from America. During my two previous trips – 2004 in Pittsburgh, in 2005 in DC and NYC – we mainly kept to ourselves.

In 2006, though, the floodgates opened and I was lucky enough to meet many US-based fans. Since then, my Chelsea life has taken a wonderful – unplanned – route all of its own.

I’m just so grateful.

After spending a few hours in “Tir Na Nog” on the Tuesday evening – nice and easy, meeting a few new Chelsea fans – we retired to the pub which was part of the same building as our apartment. We were relaxing outside on the pavement, having a bite to eat, supping some ales, when a taxi cab pulled up outside the bar. A chap exited the cab with a couple of friends and I immediately remembered him from a post-baseball game pint the previous night. I had remarked that he was a doppelganger for Carlo Ancelotti. On this occasion, we couldn’t let the moment pass.

As he approached the bar, I started chanting

“Carlo! Carlo! Carlo!”

This elicited further song from The Bobster, Lottinho, Speedy, Jeremy “Army Of One” Willard from Kansas, plus Shawn and Nick from the Boston Blues –

“Carlo, Carlo, Carlo.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.
And The 5hit From The Lane.
Have Won Fcuk All Again.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.

2, 3, 4

Carlo, Carlo, Carlo.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.
And The 5hit From The Lane.
Have Won Fcuk All Again.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.

2, 3, 4

Carlo, Carlo, Carlo.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.
And The 5hit From The Lane.
Have Won Fcuk All Again.
King Carlo Has Won The Double.”

We were roaring with laughter and “Carlo” approached us with an increasingly bemused look on his face. I explained to him about his uncanny resemblance to Carlo and guess what? He was a Scouser.

To be fair to him, he took it all in great spirits and even posed for photographs with us. He said he had been mistaken for Jay Leno the previous night.

As one, all of our left eyebrows arched in disbelief.

By the way, the look on the faces of the other customers at the tables was priceless.

I felt like saying – “yeah, we serenade random strangers all the time back in England.”

We were still laughing about this incident when we arose from our slumber on the Wednesday. We had no real plans for the day, but I soon received a text from Steve Mantle about walking over to the Rocky Steps with the four official Chelsea banners in order for photographs to be taken.

Now, that sounded like a magnificent idea.

Despite the sun bearing down on us, we assembled at Tir Na Nog and set off.

I had previously run up the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2008 – it is surely the most important thing that anyone must do in Philadelphia – and so I knew what to expect. The steps were perfect for a photograph. I stood at the base and conducted the proceedings. We elicited the assistance of a few willing tourists and I shouted instructions from below.

With everyone in place, I snapped away like a fool, knowing full well that Chelsea would be using some of the photographs in an upcoming magazine or programme. We created a bit of a scene to be honest and I guess it is the nearest I’ll ever get to being part of a flash mob.

We engaged in conversations with a few fellow fans and met a young lad wearing a Frank Lampard shirt who would be taking part in the on-game ceremonies later that day at the game.

In truth, the twenty minutes we spent under the baking sun at the Rocky Steps were one of the highlights of the whole trip.

And, no – I didn’t run to the top of the flights of steps and yell

“Yo Adrian Mutu.”

I changed into my 1989 Chelsea shirt and met up with the Chelsea faithful in Tir Na Nog at just after 5pm. Amongst the mass of blue, I was very pleased to be able to meet Captain Jack’s family; his wife Teri and their three lovely daughters called in to say “hi” and I was able to start the slow but thorough dialogue with Teri which will eventually lead to Captain Jack being allowed across the ocean to see Chelsea play at The Bridge.

In fact, there is a humorous sub story here. Teri once lived in South Kensington for a short amount of time – way back when Chelsea were mere mortals – and has actually stepped foot inside Stamford Bridge.

Come on Teri – let Steve at least even the score.

I then did a very silly thing.

I did a “Zigger Zagger” and scared the three girls to death.

I had a very quick word with Frank Sinclair and I thanked him for his kind comments about my performance on the five-a-side pitch in New York. He seemed to be enjoying himself on the tour. I can pay him no bigger a compliment than this; when we used to call in on Ron Harris in the ‘nineties, Frank was always a player who Ron rated. Frank was maybe not the most skilful, but a player who always tried his hardest. A player of guts and determination.

Good one, Frank.

As I wandered around the pub, bumping into a few old friends – and a few new ones – I noticed some Chelsea fans not joining in with the songs. I secretly tut-tutted to myself and hoped for solidarity later on that evening. It would be no time for shyness or indifference.

At 6pm, we were told to board the fleet of four yellow school buses which had assembled in the little side street outside the pub.

Another surreal experience, another typically American moment, another memory for me to take away with me.

Yellow school buses.

How quintessentially American. How hugely untypically Chelsea.

School buses.

The sight of us piling into the yellow vehicles still brings a smile to my face.

We were allowed to drink beer on the 45 minute journey to PPL Park. As the four buses roared along I-95, and then got caught in commuter traffic, and then raced each other, with fans gesticulating wildly at each other, with the skyscrapers of downtown Philadelphia in the background, it was a wonderful moment.

Why can’t all Chelsea away games be like this, full of excited fans, smiling faces, with none of the surliness shown by sections of our usual support?

The beer was going down well and the songs were roaring. We had two Seattle Sounders fans on our bus and they led the way; others followed. Speedy was in good form and I followed with a few old favourites. There is nothing like a beer to keep your throat well-oiled. I chatted to a few new faces and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

In fact, I didn’t really want the journey to end.

We were eventually dropped off way past the stadium. Beth was far from pleased and I could understand her displeasure. Out in the bright evening sun, I soon chanced upon a few familiar faces that were having a little all-American tailgate. Beers were handed out and we even had a little kick-about. Tim from Philly, Mike from New York, Matthew from New York wearing a vintage NASL Memphis Rogues T-shirt.

At the baseball game on the Monday, I had chosen to wear a Philadelphia Fury shirt in honour of the great Peter Osgood who played for them during the summer of 1978.

The time was moving on. Away in the distance, the stadium looked a picture. Beyond, the Commodore Barry Bridge – again, so typically American – was proving to be just as magnificent.

By this time, my head was buzzing, but I knew I had to get inside the stadium in order to get a share of some the pre-match atmosphere. I was also concerned about getting a fair share of photographs.

I began the long walk to PPL Park, with the sun just starting to set to the west. By now, I had lost contact with everyone and was – ahem – walking alone. At the pub, I had met a Chelsea fan who was wearing a bona fide shirt from 1991 – Commodore – and I met another one just outside the stadium.

I had a little banter with a few Union fans; friendly, in the main.

I did wonder, though, why so many fans were wearing scarves.

In July.

It seems that the US “soccer” fan base has clearly decided that a scarf is the de facto mark of football subculture, whereas – in reality – very few regulars wear scarves at Chelsea.

Discuss.

I bumped into Kev outside. Kev sits no more than eight seats away from me at Chelsea and we have been keeping each other updated with stories and rumours of this 2012 tour for what seems like an eternity.

Now, we were both there in the flesh.

Brilliant.

I was amongst friends in the Chelsea section at PPL Park. We were positioned at the top of the terrace. A few yards to my right were Funchficker and Mrs. Funchficker, Lottinho, The Bobster, Captain Jack and Speedy. Alongside me was Rey, from Los Angeles, and I was so pleased to see him again. Behind – a real surprise – was Mike Dutter and I haven’t seen him for ages. Phil was there with the Iowa Blues. Beyond – the OC Hoolifans, Mike Price at only his second ever Chelsea game, the Boston Boys…everyone together, everyone well-oiled and up for it. In front, Mark Coden – like me, an ever present on all of these recent Chelsea tours to the US.

The game against the MLS All-Stars would be my eleventh such game.

I had taken several photographs of the bridge on my approach to the 19,000 capacity stadium but was rather annoyed that its iconic steelwork was out of sight, just beyond the stand to my left. I had admired the way that the roof of this stand seemed to extend out to the bridge.

Above, the sky was slowly turning a deep blue. The moon was strikingly clear above the stand to my right.

The Chelsea fans around me were standing.

And we were clearly in good voice.

The stage was set.

The spectators were urged to take part in a two-part “stunt” but I had neither the time nor the energy for it. I believe the words “Chelsea” were visible on cards held aloft by the fans in the stand to my right, but the moment was lost to be honest.

Secondly, the colours of the American flag were visible.

The entrance of the teams.

Fireworks.

My head was still buzzing and I still needed to concentrate on getting some photographs.

Click, click,click.

The game against the MLS All-Stars in Chester, Pennsylvania will be remembered by those Chelsea fans present not for the performance of the players, nor the result, but for the constant singing, chanting and commotion created by the 1,200 fans present.

We stood the entire game and we sung the entire game.

Steve-O set the tone early on with a trademark “Zigger Zagger” and the chanting continued throughout the match. This was just what we had hoped; that the closeness of everyone would produce a subsection of PPL Park akin to an away terrace at Blackburn, Everton, West Ham or Tottenham.

I noted one chant which was new to me –

“You Play Soccer. We Play Football.”

I liked that. A little jab at the MLS hierarchy. Keep ‘em on their toes.

All the Chelsea classics were aired; too numerous to mention. I’m sure everyone has their own particular favourites.

Over to you.

Halfway through the first-half, I absolutely loved the roll-call which was started by the usual suspects to my right.

For Mary-Anne and Paul –

“Tennessee, Tennessee, Tennessee.”

For the Funchfickers –

“Ohio, Ohio, Ohio.”

For Lottinho, Dennis and Detroit Bob –

“Michigan, Michigan, Michigan.”

And for little old me –

“Somerset, Somerset, Somerset.”

Lottinho then pointed at Dennis –

“Puerto Rico.”

Out on the pitch, I will admit to being thrilled to see David Beckham play one last time, way out on the right in a rather withdrawn position. I have a lovely shot of him joking with John Terry.

The MLS team went a goal up through a Wondolowski effort from close in, only for John Terry to rise high and head home from a corner.

At the break, I rushed down to buy a beer, a hot dog and a match programme. The beer did its job because soon into the second half, I let rip with another “Zigger Zagger.” I was elated to hear the thunderous response to each guttural yelp. However, I knew I was reaching the end of my capabilities when I reached the closing moments.

“Ziiiiiiiiiger” (Oh God – I have to do a big ending here.)

“OI.”

“Zaaaaaaaaager” (Oh God – I’m barely going to be able to make this.)

“OI”

(Here we fcuking go – in for a penny, in for a pound.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER, ZIGGER ZAGGER” (…only just!)

“OI OI OI.”

A nice tap in from Frank Lampard gave us a 2-1 lead, but – much to our annoyance and disbelief – the MLS team not only equalised through Pontius but scored the winner in the “nth” minute of extra time with a ridiculous looped shot from Eddie Johnson which ricocheted off David Luiz’ leg and into an empty goal with Ross Turnbull beaten.

We were not deflated, though. We kept singing till the end.

It was a proud night in Pennsylvania.

If the long walk back to the bus wasn’t tiresome enough, we were then kept waiting for all buses to depart. Canners was on my bus back and I leaned towards him and said –

“Fcuking hell Paul. I saw your Stamford Bridge debut thirty years ago and now, here we are, on a school bus in Philadelphia.”

From the sublime to the ridiculous.

It was a quiet bus ride back to Philly.

Throughout the evening, Roma’s daughter Vanessa had texted me a few times to see what time we would be getting back into town. It seemed that they were halting their long drive back to North Carolina especially to call in to see me in Philadelphia. I gave them instructions of how to reach Tir Na Nog, but I wasn’t sure if they could delay their drive home for long.

I quickly darted back to the apartment to drop off a few things and made my way to the pub.

I was in mid-text to Vanessa when I looked up to see the three of them walking towards me.

Ah, that cheered me up no end.

With typical disregard for authority, Vanessa had simply parked her car right on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, right underneath a sign which plainly said “no parking.”

Now that, my friends, is Proper Chelsea.

They, of course, were horrified to hear that Chelsea had lost.

“Yep, we always lose to the MLS All-Stars. I don’t think we’d better play them again.”

We returned to Tir Na Nog and met up with the usual suspects once more. The mood among my Chelsea mates was defiant. We all agreed that the singing and the atmosphere amongst the “away” fans had been magnificent. I was certainly full of praise, if not full of voice.

I was croaking again.

The time was moving one. It was past 1am. I knew that the night wouldn’t last forever. With real sadness, I said my goodbyes to Roma, Vanessa and Shawn. This was the first time that I had met Shawn and I wanted to have a little moment with him. I crouched down and babbled out something like –

“Shawn – it has been so good to see you. It was great to see you in New York. And it has been even better to see you tonight. You’re a lucky boy. You have a great mother and a great sister. And you’ve seen Chelsea play! Now, until I see you again, I want you to know that we all love you.”

To which he smiled and said –

“I just farted.”

My words had obviously impressed him.

I waved them off as Vanessa drove away into the night.

Back in the apartment, Lottinho, Speedy and I spent a few philosophical moments as we looked out into the city from our balcony. It had been a simply superb time and we had enjoyed ourselves immensely in Philadelphia.

Until we do it again.

“Phriendship And Phootball.”

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