Tales From The South Bronx

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 22 July 2012.

It was all so different in 1989.

My first trip to North America, almost a year in duration, was in 1989. In some ways, it seems like a lifetime away. In other ways – because many of the memories still remain vibrant and strong – it seems like last week. In September 1989, my college mate Ian (with delicious irony, a Rotherham United fan…and yes, he went to our 6-0 defeat in 1981) and I touched down at JFK. Our flight had been delayed due to an almost calamitous malfunction just before take-off at Gatwick. A tyre had burst as the jumbo hurtled down the runway and had flew up into the engine causing severe damage to the engine and our hearts alike. Thankfully, there was enough room left on the runway for the pilot to slow down. Several passengers were visibly shaken, but Ian – on his first ever trip on a plane – remained remarkably calm. We were delayed for eight hours as an alternative plane was located and this resulted in us not getting to New York until around 10pm. Our plans to travel in to Manhattan by bus were jettisoned and our first real sighting of North America was through the dirty windows of a yellow New York cab as it took us on a rather circuitous route through Queens, with the glistening lights of the Manhattan skyscrapers beckoning us closer and closer to the heart of the city. Once over the Brooklyn Bridge, the slow ascent up one of the north-south avenues of Manhattan is a memory that remains strong to this day. The cab driver seemed to take a great deal of pleasure in telling us that a local had been killed just opposite our hostel near Times Square the night before. I can vividly remember trying to fall asleep on the upper bunk in a youth hostel dorm as police sirens wailed outside. My head was spinning. I was scared and exhilarated in equal measure.

Welcome to America.

I remained in North America until June 1990 and my travels took me to many states. We cycled down the east coast, from Virginia to Florida, and I particularly enjoyed the cities of New York, St. Augustine, New Orleans, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver. I snorkelled off the Florida Keys, saw basketball in Denver, baseball in New York and Toronto, ice hockey in Vancouver. In many ways, it was the time of my life.

But throughout that entire ten month period, I only ever bumped into one other Chelsea fan. Before heading down to Florida for one final month, I stopped off in New York for my first ever New York Yankees baseball game. On the day after that momentous match in the South Bronx, I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge and chanced upon an ex-pat wearing a particularly hideous umbro Chelsea training shirt.

Ten months, many cities, many states, many people, but only one other Chelsea fan.

Twenty-two years later, things have changed a million fold.

In 1989, I arrived in America with Chelsea as second division champions.

In 2012, I arrived in America with Chelsea as European champions.

Let’s recap on 2011-2012. Of course, it began on an overcast summer day at a downbeat Fratton Park as the previously trophy-less season under Carlo Ancelotti was laid to rest. The very next day, I flew off to Kuala Lumpur for the first game of the Asia tour. Little did I know, but the season would prove to be the most unbelievable and tumultuous season of my life. Mid-way through it, at the nadir of Andre Villas-Boas’ reign, I had visions of our worst finish for twenty years. The team was in a desolate state of health. The spirit – at Goodison Park especially – was horrendous. Even I was at a low ebb. I began to wonder if my support would be tested during the last painful months of the campaign. That the season would finish with tears of happiness in Munich would have been seen as a simply ridiculous and unattainable vision, conjured by some foolish fantasist.

But the resurgence of Chelsea under Roberto di Matteo on the European trail was just one of a plethora of equally marvellous moments.

Back in October, the SayNoCPO campaign defeated the heavy handed desire by a patronising board of directors to loosen the CPO’s hold on Stamford Bridge. Never have I felt prouder to be a Chelsea fan as we exited that EGM, the club defeated, the fans high on euphoria.

We thumped our old enemies Tottenham 5-1 in the F.A. Cup semi-final and went on to defeat our new enemies Liverpool in the final. It was our fourth such triumph in just six seasons. The youngsters again won the F.A. Youth Cup. Arsenal went trophy less of course. Tottenham too. Manchester United – never my most liked of teams – lost the league title in the most ridiculous and heartbreaking of circumstances in the last few minutes of a long season to arch rivals Manchester City. A trophy for Liverpool unfortunately, but there was a certain element of glee in the way that they celebrated their Carling Cup victory against Cardiff City…on penalties…as if they had won the league. My local team Frome Town enjoyed a strong first season at the highest ever level in their history. A new stand had been built in time for the March 31st deadline and more than a few Chelsea friends in America had donated funds to help. Further afield, my favourite European club team Juventus had christened their first season in their new trim stadium with a championship involving not one single defeat.

With victories against Napoli, Benfica, Barcelona and Bayern, Chelsea had become European Champions for the very first time and – in doing so – had relegated Tottenham to a season in the shadows on Thursday nights.

Munich was the best weekend of my life, the best night of my life.

Yes – 2011/2012 was some season.

Our greatest ever season.

In some ways, there was certain reluctance on my part to even contemplate thinking about the next one. My focus, if anything, was for the World Club Championship, way ahead in December. And Munich was but a heartbeat away. This is a familiar comment from me, but I don’t think I was ready for 2012-2013 to start. Yet again, my main focus as I crossed the Atlantic once more was to meet up again with old friends. The football, most certainly, was of secondary importance.

I flew into Boston on the night of Saturday 14 July. For six days, I relaxed at my own pace, basing myself in the historic town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I drove up the Maine coast a few times and also inland to Vermont. I’ve had a pretty hectic period at work and I certainly enjoyed the tranquil change of pace.

I caught a train from Boston to Penn Station on Friday 20 July. After almost a week of – in the main – my own company, I was ready for the madness of New York. The tribes were gathering and, despite a torrential downpour on my arrival in Gotham, my fervour could not be dampened.

I was ready for all that New York City – after Stamford Bridge, maybe my third home – could throw at me.

Here are some highlights.

8pm, Friday 20 July – Legends, West 33rd. Street.

Down in the cellar of The Football Factory at Legends, a dark but atmospheric epi-centre of football fandom underneath the considerable shadow of the Empire State Building, the first troops were greeting each other with backslaps and handshakes. I spotted Paul Canoville, wearing a brightly coloured shirt and a trademark baseball cap, who I had met on a couple of occasions before. At the South Station in Boston earlier that day, I had bought a copy of the New York Post. An article had made me giggle and I knew that it would amuse Canners too. The former NBA player Dennis Rodman, while on a tour of The Philippines with an exhibition team, had met his father – the wonderfully named Philander Rodman – for the first time since he was a very young child. There was a photo of them greeting each other. Rodman Senior had been living in Manila for many a year, but I was staggered to read that he had fathered 26 children with 19 different women.

Here was a story to share with Canners, who himself had fathered a similarly large brood, with a variety of women. Canners smiled as I shared the story with him and he enjoyed hearing it, no doubt, but there was another tale, which I did not dare to mention, underneath this one.

Canners was separated from his father too, but memorably met up with his dad for the first time since his childhood on the night at Hillsborough in Sheffield when he tore Sheffield Wednesday to shreds in his greatest ever game for Chelsea. We were 3-0 down at half-time, came back to lead 4-3, only for an infamous Doug Rougvie foul to gift Wednesday a late penalty. I didn’t dare ask him if that emotional meeting had inspired him to greatness on that night in 1985. Some questions are best left unasked.

I had seen his first ever game at Stamford Bridge against Luton Town in May 1982. Thirty years ago. That game – our last game in a mediocre season at the second level – does seem like yesterday. Strange how some games drift off into oblivion, but the memory of Paul Canoville, the local boy from Hillingdon, coming off the bench to be met with a mixed reaction from The Shed is a strong one.

It was great to see him in America.

1pm, Saturday 21 July – Chelsea Piers.

As the fans tournament, involving four teams of Chelsea fans from throughout the US, was coming to an end, I was as nervous as I have been for years. I had been chosen to captain the Chelsea team to play in the Friendship Cup game against Paris St. Germain. When I had heard this news a few weeks back, I was very humbled, certainly very proud, but the over-riding feeling was of fear. I hadn’t played for two months and I was genuinely concerned that I may pull a muscle, or jar my once troublesome right knee, or give away a penalty, or run out of gas after five minutes or just look out of my depth. This is typical of my times in various school football teams over thirty years ago when I would tend to be shackled by fear and a lack of confidence in my ability on the pitch.

Once the game began, my fears subsided and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. We lead 3-1 at the break, but soon allowed PSG to scramble some goals. At 4-4, I managed to squeeze in a goal and my heart exploded. Could we hang on? In the end, PSG went 8-6 up and there was no Canoville-like inspired recovery at the end. Canners, plus Frank Sinclair, were the refs and what a pleasure it was to be on the same football pitch as them both.

Upstairs in the gallery, no doubt making a few humorous comments, was Ron Harris. When I saw my very first game at Chelsea in 1974, Ron was playing. Now, 38 years later, he was watching me play.

Now that, everyone, is just beautiful.

9pm, Saturday 21 July – Legends, West 33rd. Street.

As a lot of people know, Ron Harris used to live in the town of Warminster, no more than eight miles from Frome, my home on the Somerset / Wiltshire border. It was with growing pleasure – and disbelief – that a few mates and myself got to know Ron rather well. We used to call into his bar on the way home from Stamford Bridge from 1995 to 2000 and he always made us feel very welcome. To see him in New York, thousands of miles from England, was magnificent. I couldn’t help but sidle up to him and tell him that I saw him play around fourteen times for Chelsea, but I was still waiting to see him score a goal…

He, however, had seen me score for Chelsea that very day.

Don’t worry, I got away from him before he could tackle me.

1am, Sunday 22 July – Legends, West 33rd. Street.

My mate Millsy – another season ticket holder – had flown in on work (strangely involving trips to NYC, Philly and Miami – wink) and was regaling us all with some of his rough-and-tumble tales from life on the edges of the murkier aspects of supporting Chelsea. His exploits from Rome in 2008 – when I first met him and the legendary mad Scot Davie – had us rolling in the aisles. From punching a transvestite to waking up in a warehouse after a night on the ale in a Rome night club, to staying a few days in a Spanish jail…the stories came thick and fast. I briefly mentioned that I had turned down the chance to attend a “Q&A” with Ron Gourlay at the Chelsea hotel in Manhattan as I was concerned that I might say the wrong thing. Somebody asked our little group, which included Rick “Funchficker” Finch and Boston Ben, what we would say to Ron Gourlay if we had the chance.

As one, both Millsy and Funchficker said –

“Why are you a c**t?”

1pm, Sunday 22 July – Legends, West 33rd. Street.

Despite the game against PSG not starting until 7pm, I had arrived at Legends bang on midday and awaited the arrival of friends. I soon bumped into Tom, a fellow Chelsea home-and-away season ticket holder, who was revelling in his first ever visit to the US. His comment to me struck a chord.

“This is the most surreal experience I’ve had, Chris. This pub is full of Chelsea, but I don’t know anyone.”

Of course, to Tom, this was akin to supporting Chelsea in a parallel universe. I think he was amazed at the fanaticism from these people who he didn’t personally know. For Tom, it must have been unnerving. This scenario is so different to our experiences in the UK and Europe where the close-knit nature of the Chelsea travelling support has produced hundreds of friendships. In Wigan, in Wolverhampton, in Milan, in Munich, there are faces that are known. On this afternoon in the heart of Manhattan, fans kept entering the pub, with nobody leaving. I wondered if it would collapse with the volume of people in both bars. Thanks to my previous travels to the US with Chelsea, wherever I looked, I managed to spot a few familiar faces. I was sat at the bar, chatting with Scott from DC, his brother David from Athens, Phil from Iowa, Mark from England, Andy from California, Stephen from New Orleans. The blue of Chelsea was everywhere. Down below in the basement, a gaggle of around twenty-five PSG fans were singing, but their chants were being drowned by the boisterous chants of the Chelsea fans.

It dawned on me that, unlike in 1989, the Chelsea fans that I would be encountering were not just English ex-pats or not just Americans of English extraction, but Americans with ancestors from every part of the world. Just the previous week in Portsmouth NH, I had met a young lad who had seen me wearing a pair of Chelsea shorts and had declared himself a massive Chelsea fan. His birthplace? Turkey. I asked him if he was a fan of Galatasaray, of Besiktas or of Fenerbahce, but he said that Chelsea was his team. This frankly amazed me. It confirmed that Chelsea has truly gone global.

The simple truth in 2012 is that people like Tom and me, plus the loyal 5,000 who make up our core support at home and away games in the UK and Europe are in the massive minority amongst our support base. For our millions of fans worldwide, the typical scenario is just what Tom had witnessed at first hand in NYC; a pub in a foreign land, bristling with new Chelsea fans, fanatical for success.

I found that quite a sobering thought.

4.45pm, Sunday 22 July – New York Subway.

I travelled up to the game at Yankee Stadium with Scott and David, plus Josh from Minnesota and Stephen from New Orleans. The idea had been to get the subway bouncing with Chelsea songs, but there were too few of us to kick start this idea. Stephen contributes to the official Chelsea website as “A Blogger From America” and I first met him in Texas in 2009. He is full of football anecdotes and very good company. We swapped humorous tales from the world of football. He spoke of a game in Romania between club sides from Romania and Bulgaria. During the pre-match kick-in, the players heard music being played. The Romanians thought that it was the Bulgarian anthem and so stopped in their tracks and stood still. The Bulgarian players saw this and presumed that the music was of the Romanian national anthem. Both sets of players were stood perfectly still.

The music was from a Coca-Cola commercial.

I had recently seen a similar video. Two teams were lining up at the start of a game, facing one way, as a national anthem was being played. A TV cameraman was jostling for position, holding a huge camera in a hoist around his waist. He lost his footing, stumbled and fell. He lay motionless for a few seconds. As the national anthem played on, a team of medics attended him and he ended up being stretchered off, the two teams trying their hardest to stifle some laughs.

5.30pm, Sunday 22 July – Stan’s Sports Bar.

My friend Roma and her two children Vanessa and Shawn were on their way to find a parking spot near the stadium and so I had told Roma to meet me in “Stan’s”. I have known Roma since that very first trip to America in 1989 and she has been ever-present at all of the Chelsea US tours since 2004. They travelled up from North Carolina on the Saturday and had stayed overnight in New Jersey. Well, knowing Roma and her infamous logistical planning, “New Jersey” could mean anywhere on the eastern seaboard of America.

Roma had briefly called in at “Legends” at about 4pm, but had simply parked her car outside Penn Station. I had told her to rush back in case it got towed. Since she left New Jersey at around 11am, I struggled to understand where she had been for five hours. However, at least she was in New York City. It was a start.

As I waited for them to arrive, I enjoyed a few beers with Josh. “Stan’s” is my bar of choice when attending games at Yankee Stadium. I first ventured inside its cramped, yet atmospheric, interior in 1993. It was then that I became friends with Lou, the owner. I had seen him featured on a sports programme from 1991 when the Yankees were at a low ebb and a TV crew entered a deserted “Stan’s” for opinions. I had recorded the programme on tape – such was my passion for baseball in those days – and I arranged to get a copy sent over for Lou. Ever since that day, I always stopped by for a few words on each visit and I often brought him Chelsea stuff as gifts; a pennant here, a t-shirt there. I forget the number of free bottles of Rolling Rock I have had on the back of this.

Lou now lives in Santa Barbara and flies over for most home stands. I last visited “Stan’s” in 2010 when I was over in the US with my mother. On that occasion, I was so annoyed that I had just missed him. On this occasion, I was so pleased to see him behind the bar and we had a chat about Chelsea playing in Yankee Stadium.

Yes, that’s right.

Chelsea at Yankee Stadium.

When I first heard about this game, I was overcome with happiness. For my favourite team to play at the home stadium of my second favourite team is – to be honest – beyond description.

My trips to the US have been truly blessed. This one would surely top the lot.

Inside “Stan’s,” it didn’t take me long to meet up with three young girls – one dressed in the blue of Cruzeiro – who had obviously done their research and had brought their own little plastic sealed bag of celery. Now, this was a photo opportunity which was too good to miss.

My goodness, it wasn’t like this when I first set foot in New York in 1989.

Chelsea fans. Girls. Celery.

Pass me the smelling salts please, nurse.

My good friends The Bobster, Lottinho, Captain Jack and Speedy arrived and joined the merry throng inside “Stan’s.”

“Where’s Roma now, Chris?”

“Bunker Hill, maybe.”

I had almost given up hope on Roma reaching “Stan’s” in time. It had reached 6.30pm and I promised myself that I wouldn’t be late for the pre-game singing and the anthem. In Baltimore in 2009, Roma arrived fashionably late for the Milan game and I missed Drogba’s goal as I waited outside for her. I had been selected as one of Chelsea’s “fan photographers” for this trip and so I was worried that I might miss some great photo opportunities. I was literally in the process of handing over the envelope with Roma’s three tickets for Lou to take care of until she arrived when Vanessa tapped me on the shoulder.

“Oh boy. Am I glad to see you?”

Finally, I could relax. We headed off into Yankee Stadium to see the European Champions.

More smelling salts please nurse.

7pm, Sunday 22 July – Yankee Stadium.

This was a game in which I needed to be in many different places at once and to be able to do many different things at once. I wanted to be able to meet friends, take photographs, sing songs, concentrate on the game, analyse the behaviour of fellow fans, kick back and relax, compare to previous visits to see the Bronx Bombers and compare to previous Chelsea games in the US.

In the end, it was one glorious blur. It was simply too surreal for me to say too much about to be honest.

However, I see these Chelsea players every ten days back home during the regular season and so it is always my main goal on these trips to look instead at the faces in the stands, the fellow Chelsea in my midst.

What were my findings?

The hardcore of the Chelsea support – maybe 2,000 in total – were spread out along the first base side, like different battalions of confederate soldiers at Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg, ready to storm the Yankee lines.

Down in the corner, behind home plate, were the massed ranks of Captain Mike and his neat ranks of soldiers from New York. Next in line were the battalion from Philadelphia and the small yet organised crew from Ohio. Next in line were the wild and rowdy foot soldiers of Captain Beth and the infamously named CIA company. On the far right flank stood the massed ranks of the Connecticut Blues who were mustered under the command of Captain Steve.

It was really fantastic to see our section fully adorned with the four official banners which Steve had arranged to bring over from Stamford Bridge (Peter Osgood, Matthew Harding, John Terry and Frank Lampard). They don’t go for banners in American sports in the same way do they?

Within the CIA ranks, where I watched the first-half, the stars were the songsters from Captain Andy’s OC branch, with Steve-O leading the singing with a perfectly pitched “Zigger Zagger.” Nearby, Ben, Shawn and Nick from the Boston branch were ably assisting the support of the team.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9j_6q…&feature=g-upl

However, as the play developed on the pitch in front of us, quite a few noticed that the singing was rather intermittent and there were pockets of Chelsea fans that were quite happy to sit and keep still and keep silent.

More than a few of us sung the sadly truthful “our support is fcuking shit” fighting song in an attempt to shame the silent ones into belated action.

On the pitch, a deflected shot gave Paris St. Germain a narrow 1-0 lead at the break.

I had told Roma to head up to my section as soon as she could, but there was no sign of her. At half-time, I wandered down to see if I could spot her. Thankfully, despite stringent ticket checks by an over-efficient Yankee steward, I managed to sneak in alongside Roma, Vanessa and Shawn who were sitting, unknowingly, very close to Ron Harris and Paul Canoville among the New York Blues. This was the first time that I had met Shawn, who has the curly locks of David Luiz and a wonderful personality. He is only five. I even caught him singing “Chelsea” a few times. That boy has a great future ahead of him.

I was now able to take photographs from a different perspective; two views for the price of one.

In truth, the game wasn’t fantastic. With our players attacking the goal in left field, underneath the 500 PSG fans, I found it even more difficult to concentrate on the game.

It was fantastic to see John Terry back on the pitch. I took several photos of him adjusting his armband after taking over from Frank. The noise which greeted him was the loudest of the night.

The stadium was nowhere near full. The new stadium holds just over 50,000 and the attendance was given as just 38,000. However, I think that this was total ticket sales. I honestly think that the actual number of attendees was only around 30,000. Compared to 71,203 in Baltimore in 2009, I’d imagine that Chelsea will be disappointed. However, the vast majority of spectators inside were favouring Chelsea. And PSG aren’t Milan.

As the second half continued, the Chelsea fans in the seats along the third-base side (the area not dedicated as being solely Chelsea), mustered a chant of their very own. It mirrored the chant – the bog standard US sports team chant – which we witnessed in Arlington in 2009.

“Let’s Go Chelsea.”

I know I grumbled about this in 2009, but I was more favourable this time around. I couldn’t fault their desire to get involved. However, I just hope that there were a few neutrals or a few new Chelsea fans who had been inspired by the singing of the massed ranks on the first base side.

Apart from the players putting on a show, it’s just as important that we, the fans, put on a show too.

To this end, mid-way through the second period, I screamed out a blood-curdling “Zigger Zagger” of my own which got everyone singing and which elicited a wide grin from Canners to my left.

A neat finish from substitute Lucas Piazon gave us a share of the spoils, for which we were so relieved.

At the end of the game, Paul Canoville kindly posed for a few photographs with Roma, Vanessa and Shawn.

It was the perfect end to an amazing few hours in the South Bronx.

Late night, Sunday 22 July – Manhattan.

Roma had to race off to collect her car and I joined up with Captain Jack, Lottinho and Speedy as we caught a slow-moving train back to Manhattan. In our carriage, we chatted to a few Chelsea fans from Toronto who were in the middle of a crazy footy and baseball road trip.

Back at Legends, I realised that my voice was fading. I devoured a few more beers as I chatted to more friends before heading off with Lottinho and Speedy for a late night snack at a classic American diner.

In the city that never sleeps, it was time to get some shut-eye.

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