New York Red Bulls vs. Chelsea : 22 July 2015.
Ah, the passage of time.
Ten summers ago, I was lucky enough to travel to the United States of America to watch two out of three Chelsea tour matches when we travelled as league champions for the first time in fifty years. I attended a match in the capital city of Washington against DC United and then at the Meadowlands in New Jersey against Milan. In 2015, I was repeating myself; a return trip to the nation’s capital and another game at the Redskins’ Fedex Field and then another game in New Jersey, this time at the purpose built home of the New York Red Bulls of the MLS. There would also be a third game in Charlotte, North Carolina. And again, we would be returning to North America as English Champions.
So, here was a great chance to compare the two trips, and to note how both the global spread of Chelsea Football Club has impacted upon another continent, but to also check on how the football scene in the US has changed over the ensuing decade. It would be a trip that will bring me face to face with many good friends, but also face to face with football’s steady rise in a once barren football nation.
Season 2015-2016, I guess, would begin in the little-known town of Harrison, New Jersey, across the Hudson River and the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan.
“Let’s go to woik.”
Most of my summers away from the constant beat of football – or at least Chelsea – follow the same pattern. After following the team extensively during the previous nine months, I usually feel exhausted and in need of a break. The summer of 2015 was certainly no different. As 2014-2015 closed, I felt myself shutting-off. I needed to re-charge those batteries.
However, I was in no doubt that the upcoming US Tour, with matches against New York Red Bulls, Paris St. Germain and Barcelona, plus the fun of meeting a few good Chelsea mates, would be the kick-start that I would need.
And yet this tells only half the story.
In my closing words from the last game of season 2014-2015, I mentioned that it had been the least enjoyable of the four league championships that I had witnessed. I don’t really want to go over old ground, but in the circumstances I feel it is appropriate. There are probably several reasons for the melancholy which greeted title number five, but two are paramount. After our win against Bayern Munich in the European Cup Final of 2012, I sagely suspected that any success which followed would not reach those same heights of emotion and satisfaction. And although the lovely journey towards our fifth league championship was often exciting and entertaining, the deciding win against Crystal Palace was slightly anticlimactic.
Also, of course – and most importantly of all – in the closing months of last season, I sadly lost my mother after a short but yet distressing illness. In the period immediately after this devastating loss, football seemed at times irrelevant – and silly, banal and ridiculous – and yet at times it acted as the force which kept me sane. It was, undoubtedly, a strange and confusing time.
For both of these reasons, and more, it felt like I almost sleepwalked through the months of March, April and May.
Without being too melodramatic, season 2015-2016 represents a new challenge for me.
Of course I am genuinely intrigued to see how the new season will pan out, not only in terms of the team’s success – which, worryingly, seems assured in some optimistic quarters of our support – but also how I react to having a different set of circumstances under which I find myself supporting the club. Will my support for the club step up a few notches, will it remain constant, or will it begin to decline, with an almost imperceptible inevitability? If I am honest, I have felt that I have reached some sort of plateau of support over the past few seasons. I guess that is a pretty high plateau. I have averaged around fifty games over the past ten campaigns and it is unlikely that I will be able to maintain that level of support – some would call it addiction or obsession, rather than simple support – over the ensuing decade. But I’m not sure. This is why I find this season rather intriguing.
All of these thought, plus many more, formed a backdrop as I prepared mind, body and soul for yet another season supporting the team of royal blue on the Fulham Road.
After landing at Dulles International Airport at 3.30pm on Monday 20 July, my latest American adventure began. I picked up a hire car and soon found myself heading north. How I love the American road. The weather was perfect, the scenery magnificent. I zipped over an iconic iron bridge over the Potomac River; I was buzzing.
I was headed for my friends’ house in Flemington New Jersey. I have known Stacey since 1989. I first met her husband Bill in 2001. They kindly invited me to stay the first night with them. After five hours of driving, I eventually reached their fantastic house at around 10.30pm. The last time that I had seen them was at Gettysburg when I visited that wonderful and historic Civil War site with my dear mother in 2010. As we chatted – a bottle of Peroni never tasted better – I could not help think back on the few hours that my mother spent in their house five years ago. Lovely memories. The next morning after breakfast, we spoke about a few current issues occupying our minds, but – typically me – I managed to chat about football too. Stacey and Bill are no football fans, although Stacey accompanied me to our 1-1 draw with Milan in New Jersey in 2005 – but I enjoyed our conversation about how football has taken hold in an increasingly rapid fashion in the US in the time that I have been visiting.
During the previous evening, I had driven past the Pennsylvania town of Bethlehem, and I spoke to Stacey and Bill how that town used to house a US football powerhouse back in the ‘twenties called Bethlehem Steel. It was lovely that I drove past such an important town in the history of US football. The late David Wangerin penned an intriguing book called “Soccer In A Football World” which detailed the rise – and fall – and then rise again – of our sport in the United States. In the early twentieth century, everything was up for grabs, with various sports clamouring for national attention. For several reasons – some more nefarious than others – football missed its opportunity to stake a hold in the hearts and minds of the US nation. The other four major sports left football in their wake. It has taken a long time – via the boom and bust era of the NASL – for football to reach its current place in the hierarchy of US sports. The growth has been exponential in even the eleven years since my first Chelsea game in the US, the 3-0 win over Roma in Pittsburgh, when the Chelsea section was only around 150 in number.
The growth of the MLS – now with the fifth highest league attendances anywhere in the world – has grown year on year. New teams are created, new markets explored, new superstars added. It is an interesting story.
I often think that the US is a fantastical social experiment; “add various races from Europe, then add other races from Asia, then Africa. Mix and observe.”
It seems to me that the US football fan culture has evolved under similar lines; “add banners from Italy, songs from England, standing areas from Germany, scarves from Spain, chants from Mexico. Mix and observe.”
On the Tuesday, I drove to River Edge in New Jersey. I was staying with another couple – Lynda and Tee – for two nights, which would encompass the first of our tour matches. I have known Lynda, via the New York Blues, since 2010 and I first met T in 2012. Sadly, Lynda lost her paternal grandfather on the Sunday; it would be a tough time for her, but I was welcomed with open arms. Tee coaches football and soon arrived back from a “gig” in Hoboken.
It was Tuesday afternoon – around 5pm – and we sped over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. Our excitement was palpable; we would soon be meeting up with many friends in a bar under the shadow of the Empire State Building, but there was an added – and wondrous – twist. Not only would former players Bobby Tambling, Mario Melchiot and Paul Canoville be making an appearance, but arrangements had been made – hush hush and all that – for Frank Lampard to make an appearance too.
My friend Roma, with her friend Peggy, from Tennessee arrived at about 6.30pm. Roma is a familiar figure in these Tales, and has been a fantastic friend over the past twenty-six years. Roma has attended games at every one of Chelsea’s previous eight US tours (she is “one up” on me, since I missed the 2013 tour), and was doing all three of this summer’s games. However, when I calmly informed her that her hero Frank Lampard would be in the bar later in the evening, her reaction was lovely. To say she was excited would be an understatement. She almost began crying with joy. Bless her.
What a lovely time we all had. In addition to being able to reconnect with many good Chelsea friends, including the usual suspects from the UK, we were treated to an hour or so of valuable insights into the four guest’s views on various subjects. Munich often dominated the questions. Frank was very gracious and answered each question carefully and with wit and sincerity. I loved the way that he listened attentively to the other players. Near the start, the New York crowd began singing :
“We want our Frankie back, we want our Frankie back.”
Frank smiled and responded :
“I’ll be back.”
It was these three words which would be reported all of the way around the world the next morning.
I took a few photographs, but could not get close to Frank. However, it was just lovely to be so close to a Chelsea legend. Frank signed some shirts and photographs, but he needed to shoot off to meet up with his former team mates later in the evening. As he slowly exited amid scenes of adulation, it did not surprise me to see Roma right next to Frank, with her camera poised.
Roma and Frank, New York 2015.
A few of us stayed chatting until gone midnight. To be honest I expected a later night, but then I realised;
“Not everyone is on holiday.”
Tomorrow, game day, would be a normal working day for most.
I spent all of the Wednesday in New Jersey. I was not tempted, for once, by Manhattan’s many attractions.
I had, actually, only been in New York in June, on a joint fiftieth birthday trip with my two good friends Daryl and Neil. We had planned that particular trip, encompassing two New York Yankees games, a New York Mets game and a Brooklyn Cyclones minor league game, for five years. We had a lovely time. The back story is particularly amusing.
In addition to being Chelsea fanatics, Daryl and I follow the Yankees. For many years we had said that should Chelsea ever experience a decline in fortunes, and specifically a prolonged absence from European games – with all associated expenses – then we would be able to go over to see some Yankee baseball. This plan was spoken about for many years.
Well, Chelsea kept winning.
The baseball trip never looked like happening.
European trips to Champions League cities prevailed.
In 2010, we decided that “enough was enough.”
In June 2015, we eventually made it to The Bronx for some baseball. We loved every minute of it. We even bumped into a few New York Blues at “Legends” after one game. It was fantastic.
On the Wednesday morning, I drove up to Woodbury Common in New York State, where there is a huge outlet centre. Always on the lookout for suitable additions to my football wardrobe, I picked up a few snappy shirts.
“It would be rude not to.”
In the afternoon, at just after 4pm, Lynda and I walked to the local suburban train station near her home. I was flagging slightly and, appropriately, guzzled back a refreshing tin of Red Bull. At 4.26pm, we caught the train to Secaucus Junction.
Season 2015-2016 was about to begin.
We then caught another train to Newark Penn Station. Outside, at around 5.30pm, we popped into the oddly-named “mmmBello’s” pub, which is often frequented by those of my New York mates who are not only Chelsea supporters, but fans of the Red Bulls too. This would surely be an odd game for them. What would be my equivalent? Frome Town versus Chelsea I suppose. It seemed we could not escape football. The US versus Jamaica game from Atlanta was on TV. The US would eventually lose 2-1, much to the complete joy of T, who had joined us, who is from Jamaica.
There was football everywhere.
On the Tuesday, the Red Bulls had played a US Cup – their equivalent of the FA Cup – match against Philadelphia Union. However, this meant that in all likelihood the Red Bull team against us would be a weakened team. This also meant that, unfortunately, the attendance would not be so great. This immediately disappointed me. I wanted to see a full house, with cheering NYRB fan groups going for it. I wanted a “proper” away game. As I met with more and more familiar faces, I was surprised how quiet the pub was. I expected it to be buzzing.
The “Rolling Rocks” were going down well though. It was a mellow time. I spoke with a few about the exciting plans for the new Stamford Bridge. Expect a running commentary about that subject this season.
One sight made my heart miss a beat. At the end of the street, past a huge graffiti mural on an old red brick building, the street opened up with a view across the Hudson River. There, all alone in the distance, was the World Trade Centre, standing tall on the southern tip of Manhattan.
Welcome to New York.
We were – typically Chelseaesque – running late for the game. We bolted down last beers and quickly walked the mile or so to the impressive Red Bull Arena. It is one of the new breed of purpose-built stadia, ideal for MLS, which have been built in recent years. It is a fine stadium. The sun glinted off the curving roof panels as we hurriedly entered the turnstiles. Up and into the guts of the stadium, and I was again impressed. The navy blue seats contrasted well with the silver of the exposed steelwork. Making our way towards the Chelsea section high up in the far corner, I glimpsed down just as Loic Remy kicked-off our season.
I soon joined the massed ranks of the blue-shirted loyalists and tried to take it all in.
Camera poised, I took a few panoramic shots, before focussing on the line-up. All of this was rather rushed. I would have preferred more time to settle myself. We were wearing our new Yokohama shirts.
Blue shirts, blue shorts, blue socks.
Chelsea appeared to be on top in the first few exchanges. All around me were familiar faces from New York and beyond. However, somebody was missing.
Where was Roma? She was meant to be sitting alongside me. I hoped that she was safe.
We bossed the first-half, with Victor Moses looking particularly lively, and with Mikel and Fabregas dictating the midfield. It was our first sighting of the much vaunted Bertrand Traore who fitted in well. We dominated the early play, with a few chances drawing excited gasps from the fans around me. On twenty-six minutes, Oscar found an unmarked Loic Remy, who was able to steady both himself and the ball, and slot home.
The Chelsea section, although predominantly seated – unlike at Chester in 2012, the high water mark in terms of noise at any Chelsea game in the US – were in good form. Cathy initiated a hearty “Zigger Zagger” and there were outbreaks of that song and others throughout the first-half. It was great to hear.
The loudest chant of the first-half was the US-styled “Let’s Go Chelsea, Let’s Go” which used to annoy me, but I know accept it.
It is a US chant, not a Chelsea one, but so be it.
We continued to dominate the first-half, with only a silly blunder by Thibaut Courtois causing us any anxious moments.
At half-time, I descended down into the concourse and had a wonderful time meeting many Chelsea fans who it has been my absolute pleasure to get to know over the years.
Jon from Florida.
Karen from Connecticut.
Brian from North Carolina.
Tim from Pennsylvania.
Frank from New York.
Keith from New Jersey.
Brenda from Georgia.
Behind the stadium, the night was falling and there were the bright lights of Manhattan. What a sublime view.
I missed the start of the second-half due to my prolonged hand shaking, hugging and suchlike on the crowded concourse. Thankfully, at the top of the steps were Roma and Peggy. They had watched the first-half from behind the goal. It was a relief to see them both.
Eliot thrusted a can of cider into my hands and I took my seat alongside Roma, Peggy, Tom, Samantha and Larry.
I could relax.
Jose had rung the changes at half-time and it took me forever to work it all out. Only Zouma, Oscar and Dave remained from the first period. However, in addition to my throat being rather sore, my mind was a little muddled. This pre-season is a work out for us fans too.
Roma joined in with the “Diego” chants. It was great to see him on the pitch. We need him to be back to his fearless – and fit – best throughout the campaign.
I won’t dwell on the events of the second-half. However, the equaliser set the pattern for an almost comedic array of defensive blunders which allowed the vastly under-strength Red Bulls team to surge past us.
There was growing disbelief with each calamity. All around me, stunned silence. The home crowd, particularly quiet throughout the whole game, greeted each goal with woops of pleasure.
“Oh bloody hell Chelsea.”
The deficit was reduced when Eden Hazard cut inside and drilled a shot home.
The Chelsea support was stirred. The songs began again. One song made me smile.
“One Bobby Tambling. There’s Only One Bobby Tambling.”
Bobby was watching among the New York Blues just a few rows behind me.
Sadly, our hopes were extinguished when the home team struck again and made our misery complete.
I quickly tried to explain everything to myself.
“Sigh. It’s only pre-season. Jose will not be happy though. Defensive blunders. Pretty good singing. The half-time social was magnificent. A defeat still hurts though. Ugh.”
No doubt some – hopefully not many – of our fans would be reading too much in to this surprising defeat. They ought to log on to Ebay and get themselves a life.
I took a photo of Bobby Tambling with Roma and Peggy with the quickly-emptying stadium as a backdrop.
We all then descended down and out into the New Jersey night.
I said some farewells to some. Sadly many were only watching this first game.
I would see others, many others, in Charlotte and DC.
After taking a while to exit the immediate area by the stadium, which like Stamford Bridge is rather hemmed in, Lynda drove us home.
All three of us were rather lost for words.
Then New York took over.
Heading north on I-95, that long and never-ending highway that hugs the US coast from Maine to Florida, we were treated to the bewildering and ridiculously photogenic sight of Manhattan, just a few miles away across the Hudson.
Scintillating blurs of reds, whites, yellows and blues fizzed and popped into view.
The sight was stunning.
All of a sudden, the football didn’t seem to matter.