COMPLICATED CHOICES

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Loyalty. It’s a tricky concept, and it throws up all sorts of questions. Recently I felt like my allegiance to Chelsea was tested.

Chelsea versus Manchester United is a huge match, and if anything its importance has grown in the last decade. When I was a boy in Belfast, and the Blues were yo-yoing between the top two divisions, the games against the reds from Manchester and Liverpool were the most eagerly anticipated of the season. At least it was for me, as the overwhelming number of football fans on both sides of the Irish border picked one of these teams from the North-West to be “their” side, although maybe Spurs and Arsenal were the big matches for Chelsea supporters living in and around the capital. Nevertheless, it was often immense battles against the red giants even if frequently it resembled David v Goliath.

Since Roman bought us of course the playing field has been levelled, and recently we have frequently been the favourites, even at the once-impregnable stronghold of Anfield. But anyway, the point is that Chelsea v Manchester United is a massive contest, no matter which way you slice and dice it. And at this stage of the season, when it’s first against second like it was last month, it’s the most important league game of the year to date.

For most of the year Louisiana is six hours behind the UK, but for a couple of weeks in the autumn / fall, it’s down to five hours because clocks in the USA go back later than at home. Normally this is great – 1230pm kick-offs in England allow an extra precious hour in bed, while 530pm Saturday starts become 1230pm and give you the rare luxury of watching weekend football in the afternoon. For the Manchester United contest though this worked against me. Typical.

My local pub has two Sunday morning football teams, a Firsts and a Seconds. Being an old man who was not very good even when I was a young man, I play for the Seconds. However our second string can act like a feeder club, sending the best players from our bunch of cloggers onto a side who may actually play some decent football. Much like Spurs.

So what with losing players, others out of town, some away coaching, etc it meant that we were struggling to field 11 players for our noon game on a pitch 10 minutes away from Finn McCool’s, the bar showing the match. Normally the Chelsea game would be on at 10am local time, giving me enough time to watch it and make it to our match in time (kinda) for kick-off. Instead the Blues were on at 11am meaning I had to decide: watch the game or play for Finn McCool’s.

You see, it’s complicated. For a start, Finn McCool’s isn’t just any old pub team, but the club I helped start almost eight years ago. I was at the original meeting to set it up – in fact, I’m the only person left from that original get-together still playing. I’m also the only original from our first game currently playing this season. And I wrote a book about what we went though before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. You get the point: it’s my team and I feel a deep sense of loyalty.

But we had already lost our first two league games, and in our short twice-yearly season we only play 10 matches. In the opening seven days of the campaign we were already out of the running to defend the title we won (undefeated by the way) last season. In the great scheme of things, or even the small scheme of New Orleans Sunday morning football, another defeat wasn’t going to matter.

So all sorts of plots and subplots swirled in my head when I went to the pub to watch the match. I was stripped and ready to play, poised to dash to the pitch, or maybe I’d just watch Chelsea and turn up for the second half. Or not.

My Liverpool-supporting friend from Grimsby who also plays on the team had gone to Finn’s earlier for the Merseyside derby then left to play in our match. He called from the field – 10 minutes to kick-off and we only had nine men. It was half-time at Stamford Bridge. Yes we were 2-1 down, but it was obvious the second period was set up to be a corker. We were going to come flying at them. The momentum was with us. You just knew it was going to be full of drama and excitement.

But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t stay to watch. I couldn’t abandon my team. Even for Chelsea v Manchester United.

So I jumped in the car and drove to the park – and when I got there I was the 13th player. Three others had turned up late. But in the sultry Louisiana heat, which even at the end of October can climb close to 90 degrees, you need substitutes. That’s why the league rule is rolling subs. So I played most of the game and we won 5-2 for our first victory of the season. So that was great, and I’m glad I made the effort.

Across the world on a chilly evening in London, the outcome wasn’t as good. But despite the football conflict and that result – indeed, any result – I know I’m still a True Blue loyal fan.

Stephen Rea is the author of the book Finn McCool’s Football Club, a tale of supporting Chelsea from the United States, the formation of a pub football team in New Orleans and the devastating effect of Hurricane Katrina on that city. Visit his site here: www.stephen-rea.com or friend him at www.facebook.com/stevorea

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Please note : the views in many of our blogs are written by fans of Chelsea FC and are not necessarily the views of the club

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