So there you have it. Chelsea have left on a jet plane, don’t know when they’ll be back again, and if we Stateside fans want to see them it will mean a trip over land and sea. Although not necessarily to Leicester.
Judge the tour on the team’s results and it has not been a roaring success. Defeats to AC Milan and the MLS All-Stars, a draw with Paris St-Germain, and a sole victory against the Seattle Sounders. Hardly championship-winning form.
But if pre-season was simply about chalking up victories, the Blues would be touring Iceland and Malta. I’m sure the bosses at the Bridge are more interested in a scramble of corporate buzzwords and phrases focusing on the brand, increasing the fan-base, and expanding the recognition.
Writing as a supporter on this side of the Pond, we only care about one thing: seeing our players in the flesh.
I bet tens of thousands of Chelsea fans, spread across this great nation at matches from the Pacific Northwest to the Atlantic Southeast, got their first experience of a Blue Day. They went to the pub, mingled and chatted with fellow fans, sang on the bus to the stadium, and chanted during the match. Then possibly went back to the bar.
And guess what? We’ve got them. They are Chelsea fans for life now.
Some of you may be season ticket holders who go to every game, maybe you see a dozen matches a season, or perhaps you only make one game a year. But no matter how old you are, no matter how many games you’ve seen, no matter where you live, I bet all of you remember the first time you saw the Blues. And then you were hooked for life.
We crowded onto subways in Manhattan and sat for hours on buses in traffic-clogged Philadelphia, so it’s easy to forget that this overpopulated region is so unrepresentative of the country as a whole. Think of the contrast between London and Hampshire and that’s only 50 miles, then expand that across a continent that stretches 3,000 miles with climate swings from frozen wastelands to barren deserts to tropical hurricanes.
Over here tens of thousands of Chelsea supporters watch their team on their own via the web or on TV, often after getting up at a crazy time with no fellow fans to cheer or commiserate with. In sparsely populated parts of America the nearest bar showing English football may be hundreds of miles away. Yes, hundreds. When I lived in Houston after evacuating New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, it was a round-trip of 90 miles to the nearest bar – and that in the fourth biggest city in the country.
I can’t measure the success of the US tour in fitness and results like Robbie and his staff, nor can I analyses the financial outcome off the field like the number-crunchers at the club. I’m here to write about the fans. And for us it was a resounding success.
It’s fantastic just to be able to see your team play a live game. Sure, the drinking and singing and shouting and chanting are great, and it’s wonderful sitting in a sea of blue surrounded by fellow fans, but what’s really important is the team, the club, the shirt. It doesn’t matter whom we play or whether we win or lose. That’s the great thing about Chelsea in America.
Our support in this country is growing. When I emigrated eight years ago, Chelsea was the name of the ex-President’s daughter. Now our shirts are everywhere, our goals are on the major TV networks, and supporters’ clubs are sprouting up all around the country. I met a guy in Philadelphia who wants to start a Louisiana chapter, and I said I would tell Pat, my friend who makes up the other 50 per cent of the New Orleans Supporters Club.
At the weekend I watched our game in Miami on TV then went to RFK Stadium in Washington for DC United v Paris St-Germain. The lack of support for the French compared to our games was obvious and I didn’t see a single PSG shirt inside the stadium, yet I spotted a few Chelsea jerseys walking down The Mall that afternoon.
I’m fascinated with the similarities and the differences between the USA and the UK, and with 20 minutes gone the referee took off the players after a rumble of thunder and a bolt of lightning. The stoppage lasted half-an-hour, yet in more than three decades of watching football in Britain I don’t remember that ever happening. Weather in this country is so much more severe and dangerous, and, talking of lightning, Ibrahimovic scored two minutes into his debut.
The second best thing about Chelsea coming to this side of the Pond is that it gives the fans an excuse to get together again. I have friends I met on the first (recent) trip in 2004 but whom I only see when the club tour Stateside. It’s like a family reunion giving supporters from all around the country the chance to swap stories and laugh and joke, and I hear a few go to the pub and drink as well, though personally I wouldn’t know anything about that.
My most vivid mental picture of the tour was as the sides lined up before the game against the MLS All-Stars in Philadelphia. Despite the Yankee razzamatazz it felt like I was at a proper football match: Terry and Lampard were lined up alongside Henry and Beckham as the Chelsea fans turned their section blue and sang their hearts out. In contrast, as the colour-coordinated and card-waving fans turned the stadium into the Stars and Stripes with the national anthem building to a crescendo, the hairs on the back of my neck tingled at this all-American moment.
But my absolute favourite snapshot came two days earlier whilst on the train from New York to Philadelphia with fans from all around the country. This veteran of Chelsea trips stretching back to the mid-eighties was on the phone talking about details for my five-year-old’s birthday party. Two other male middle-aged expat fans were deep in a discussion about cooking chicken.
But around us young Americans who had travelled from states stretching from New York to Kansas to California watched a rerun of the Champions League final and excitedly discussed the game. To quote a great American, ‘The torch has been passed to a new generation…’