When the opportunity presented itself to visit New York for free it was always going to be something too good to pass up on, even if it meant sacrificing a jaunt to the Eternal City to watch Chelsea in Champions League action against AS Roma.
If I hadn’t already seen the Blues play in the Stadio Olimpico, I might have thought twice about it. Besides which, the final of the competition will be played there in May, and Big Phil, supremely confident that his Chelsea team will be there to contest it, has already sorted out his hotel accommodation. Good enough for Big Phil. Good enough for me. The Blues will be back in Rome, and I’ll be there with them.
New York, with its vaunted skyline and cityscape is an iconic city. Vertiginous glass and steel skyscrapers blend effortlessly with imperious neo-gothic towers and churches. Yellow taxis weave along the steamy streets jockeying for position with sinister looking black Escalade’s.
The pavements are permanently awash with a sea of people. Native New Yorkers going about their business, stressed out suits scurrying to appointments and tourists like me trekking to the magnificent art deco architectural spectacle that is the Empire State Building, ascending to the 102nd floor and gazing out across the five boroughs that constitute the city. The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island. Every New York based film you’ve ever seen suddenly comes to the forefront of the mind. The Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, the murky malevolence of the East River. Landmarks aplenty and none more enduring than the Statue of Liberty watching charitably over her great city.
Like London, New York is a spectacularly diverse city, a melting pot of races, nationalities, colours, religious heritages and cultures from all over the world and as I’d arrived, I couldn’t help noticing its inhabitants were buzzing. The good citizens of the United States were in the grip of election fever, and multi-ethnic New York it seemed favoured the chances of Senator Barack Hussein Obama becoming the America’s first black president.
The thought had crossed my mind before I’d left Blighty that given the US was going to the polls on November 4th I might find it difficult to find somewhere that might be screening the Roma / Chelsea match especially bearing in mind the time difference which meant the game would effectively be kicking off at 2.45pm.
Facebook to the rescue. The social networking site has a thriving global Chelsea community and amongst the myriad Blues ‘groups’ that can be found therein are the New York Blues. Founded in 1998 by expat Blues brothers, Mike and Steve Neat, the NYB congregate on match-days at Nevada Smiths a football-friendly New York drinker that can be found at 74 Third Avenue on Manhattan’s lower east side.
As it transpired, there are plenty of Chelsea fans who will testify that Nevada Smiths is ‘the’ place to head for if you find yourself in the Big Apple during the season. The day before I’d flown out to NYC, prior to the 5-0 drubbing of Sunderland, I’d been talking to the usual reprobates that loiter at the cfcuk stall … an increasingly popular place now it has a roof to shelter from the elements which seem more and more inclement with every passing match. Both Aggy (he of the ubiquitous Cyprus Chelsea flag) and fellow Chelsea author Martin King had been full of praise for both Nevada Smiths and the New York Blues.
Sorted then! ‘Nevada Smiths’, I’d drawled in the best mockney accent I could muster to the driver of the cab I’d flagged down at 48th and Lexington.
Nevada Smiths ‘where football is religion’. This is a proper drinker, with a long polished wooden bar and a mind boggling selection of beers, wines and spirits from around the globe. A sports bar where the man behind the jump, a likeable Man U fan by the name of Jack Keane, knows exactly what you are talking about when you ask for a wifebeater top and a packet of pork scratchings.
A chant went up around the bar, to the familiar refrain of Oh West London is wonderful … Oh when Jack Keane is pouring pints Oh when Jack Keane is pouring pints I want to be at Nevada’s Oh when Jack Keane is pouring pints.
Jack Keane smiled. ‘It’s good here isn’t it,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eye. He wasn’t wrong there, was Keano.
The venue shows over 100 live football matches per week and boasts an impressive wall mounted array of HD flat-screen TV’s with crystal clear picture quality. The TV’s are interspersed with signed framed football shirts and memorabilia, with sections of the bar clearly devoted to local fan clubs. Whilst the New York Blues are the second oldest fan club based at Nevada’s after Manchester United, it is Barcelona whose matches command the biggest audience.
I wondered how this might work on a Champions League match-day such as today when some of these teams might be playing at the same time. Simple, explained another of the barmen, Keiron Slattery. ‘The Barca fans are being directed to the downstairs bar, whilst on this floor some TV screens will be showing the Chelsea match and others the game involving Liverpool and Athletico Madrid.’
This would be a recipe for trouble in England. Can you imagine Liverpool and Chelsea fans sitting together to watch a game? More than just beer would be spilt, there’d be claret everywhere! Keiron pointed out that the ‘locals’ who gather at Nevada’s to watch matches all know and respect each other. Groups of tourists, stag parties in particular, who happen on the place, are educated on arrival that fractious behaviour will not be tolerated.
At this point, having chanted Jack Keane’s name, the New York Blues, tonsils now well lubricated, didn’t want to leave out Keiron. Slattery, Slattery. If Jack don’t mind we’ll buy our pints from Kieron Slattery. Slattery, Slattery.
The Neat family emigrated to the US back in 1979, but distance hasn’t dimmed brothers Mike and Steve’s enthusiasm for all things Chelsea. They preach the Stamford Bridge gospel to anyone who will listen and there were plenty of born and bred Yankees present swathed in the Blue and the Blue who have been converted to the Chelsea cause.
Granted ‘official’ supporter club status by CFC, the NYB, like many displaced supporters clubs plan annual trips to SW6 and it is a frustration shared by many of these groups that corporate Chelsea only makes tickets available to what we would refer to as ‘lesser’ fixtures. Harri Hemi and his fabled Swedish Blues are a prime case in point here. These are the boys who lead the chanting when the atmosphere is a bit flat against the likes of Wigan Athletic or Bolton Wanderers. Chelsea, as Pipsqueak Kenyon is prone to remind us, are a global brand, and so the club should do more to reward the true Blue pioneers in some of the worlds far flung outposts.
Watching football on TV is no substitute for the real thing, but the New York Blues make the most of it. Among their number is a garrulous leather-clad spikey-haired old-school punk by the name of Simon who, as the Roma / Chelsea game kicked off, broke into a rousing rendition of Carefree. Thirty or so Blues fans, myself included, joined in, much to the chagrin of the Liverpool fans who were uncharacteristically muted.
The game itself is a disaster. Two calamitous errors by John Mikel Obi of all people sent Chelsea crashing to shock defeat at the hands of the Serie A strugglers who’d taken the lead through Blues old-boy Christian Panucci. Mirko Vucinic turned the screw adding two quick goals; and Roma were 3-0 up inside the hour.
We’d contented ourselves by cheering loudly when Madrid had taken the lead at Anfield and whilst John Terry’s 75th minute goal had given us a glimmer of hope it was not enough to save the Blues from a humiliating defeat. Worse was to follow when Deco was dismissed for a second bookable offence in the 80th minute and our woe was made complete when Liverpool were dubiously awarded a late minute penalty from which Gerrard equalized.
The New York Blues are full of booze, the New York Blues are full of booze. We’ll shag your beer and drink your women. The New York Blues are full of booze.
By the time the final whistle blew, I was past caring. Several flagons of wifebeater and an inebriating shot of Jagermeister, courtesy of Punky Simon, had seen to that. Watching your team lose in such fashion can be a chastening experience but being in the company of true Blues who are just grateful to get a Chelsea fix and share in the experience a lot of us take for granted ie attending matches soon lightened the mood.
During 2008 my perspective on Chelsea’s burgeoning global support has changed. Meeting and talking to hospitable supporters groups like the Swedish Blues, Hungarian Blues and New York Blues has made me realize that Chelsea is for everybody. Forget the Johnny Come Lately gags; these are proper Blues fans whose commitment to Chelsea is as fervent as that of any season ticket holder … if not more! When these supporters make their pilgrimages to Stamford Bridge, they deserve credit and respect and not the sneering ‘tourist’ jibes levied at them by some of the less perceptive elements to be found along the Fulham Road on match-days.
I enjoyed every minute of my time in the company of the New York Blues, they are top Chels and I hope to return their hospitality when they come to SW6 in April.
If you find yourself in the Big Apple in the midst of the football season, you know where to head for … Nevada Smiths … but just remember to say ‘no’ if Punky Simon offers you a shot of Jagermeister.
Mark Worrall is the author of cult terrace classics ‘Over Land and Sea’ and ‘Blue Murder … Chelsea till I die’, his new book ‘One Man Went to Mow’ is out now. Copies are available to buy with a discount of 30% and free postage within the UK at www.overlandandsea.net