The Toon Army Takes Manhattan

How New York's soccer bars recreate the European stadium atmosphere.
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Newcastle United fans celebrate a goal at NYC's Legends 33 bar, HQ for the Toon Army NYC, a Newcastle's supporters club.

Photo courtesy of Suhrith Parthasarathy

“We are the Geordies. The Geordie boot boys. For we are mental. For we are mad. We are the loyalist football supporters. The world has ever had.”

The Newcastle United fans sang loudly, raucously, and devoid of all inhibition. It was the first Saturday of November, and Dean Smith, 37, was leading the group through the chorus. Newcastle had taken a 2-0 lead against Everton at St. James’ Park, the club’s vaunted home ground, and its fans had every reason to be merry. Grown men were hugging each other, pumping their fists, kissing the club’s insignia on their jerseys, exchanging high-fives, jumping on each other, and celebrating like kids.

Only this wasn’t St. James’ Park. This wasn’t even England. Smith was more than 3,000 miles from the U.K. He was standing, crammed with forty others—all dressed in identical black and white striped jerseys—at 9 in the morning in the snug basement of an Irish bar opposite the Empire State Building.

New York is home to more than 30 organized groups who support European soccer clubs, according to Jack Keane, who is the director of football at Legends 33, the bar where Toon Army NYC—Newcastle’s fan club—and several others meet every week. What started as small unions has bourgeoned into big groups, with some like Liverpool FC Supporters Club New York—which meets at a bar in the East Village—boasting between 300 to 400 active members. Participants range from European expatriates (who often view these associations as a means to stay in touch with the culture that they left behind) to Americans who had little or no knowledge of the sport until recently. For many of the fans, their club’s ethos and history is as ingrained in them as it is for fans in Europe.

Smith who is 6-foot-2 with a gaunt, yet broad-shouldered upper-body, was sitting on a corner table at the far end of Legends 33, sipping a Guinness. Newcastle had just lost 4-2 at Norwich City, a side that had won promotion to the Premier League only this season. You would understand if he were sullen and sore, but Newcastle were flying in the League (they were fifth after more than 15 games at the point) and this was one of their finest seasons in many years, so Smith, like other fans, was buoyant about the club’s prospects. Smith, who now works at a bank, had moved from Newcastle to the U.S. in 1995 after accepting a soccer scholarship at Boston University, and has since been back to his hometown only on holiday. But he still has a thick Geordie accent, which by being both grating and strangely melodious at once can be tough to understand.

“When I came to America, I knew nothing about the sports culture here,” Smith said. “I was in the immigration line. I had a [Newcastle] top on, and this guy goes: ‘You’re a Newcastle fan?’ And I am like ‘yes’ and he goes: ‘I love Newcastle.’ It was the first conversation I had in America and it was amazing. Then I went to the immigration officer. I give him my passport, and he says, ‘Dean Smith,’ I say ‘Yes,’ and then he asks again, ‘Dean Smith,’ and I am like ‘Yes,’ and this happens about four times and then he goes: ‘You don’t know Dean Smith, do you? The great basketball coach?’ I knew no basketball. And then he tells me that Dean Smith is the best college basketball coach of all-time, and that he’s a legend. And he’s like ‘Welcome to America.’

Newcastle United haven’t won any silverware since the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1969—a European competition that was abolished two years later—but possess some of the world’s most fervent fans, regularly filling up St. James’ Park (recently renamed Sports Direct Arena) with nearly 50,000 people for every home game. “When I came over here and I bumped into Terry [Terence Leonard], and Eddie [Wilk] and Rod [Holliday], and when I met Americans who were Newcastle fans,” says Smith, “my first instinct was, ‘Why? Why really? Why Newcastle?’ And there are different responses.”

Like most soccer fan clubs in New York, Toon Army NYC was conceived at Nevada Smiths, an East Village bar where Keane once worked. “When I went to Nevada’s, in 2003,” Smith said, “there were a couple of other [Newcastle] fans. There was Rod Holliday, this guy from New Jersey; he’s married to a girl from the Newcastle area. There was Barry Hudson, Vicky (Victoria Janet Harbertson-Bonhomme)—the blond lass upstairs—and there was Eddie (Wilk) also from New Jersey. We obviously connected immediately. We were watching Newcastle in Nevada’s. That was the place to go to watch football. Time passed by and we decided we needed to get organized.”

The first step they took was to start a website, toonarmynyc.com, to spread the word about the new supporters club. “Rod had some digital capabilities,” said Smith, “and he had the website set up, and from there it has taken off. We haven’t actively gone looking for people; it’s been more about them finding us.”

There are supporters clubs in New York that are much bigger than Toon Army NYC—Paris St. Germain, for instance, draws crowds in excess of 400 people for its big games at Legends—but few match the intensity and passion of Newcastle fans. On the first Saturday in December, Newcastle was playing at home against Chelsea and the basement at Legends was filled with more than 100 fans, almost equally divided between the two clubs. It was only 7:45 on a bitterly cold and windy morning in New York, but the bar was buzzing. It was the Chelsea fans, gathered at the front of the bar that on this occasion began a chorus of “We are the famous Blues” before kickoff. But within seconds they were quieted by the boisterous chants that echoed from the Newcastle end, led as always by the excited Smith.

“Drink, drink, wherever we may be. We are the drunk and disorderly. And we will drink wherever we may be. For we are the drunk and disorderly,” they sang, “I was drunk last night. I was drunk the night before. And I'm gonna get drunk like I've never been drunk before. Cos when we're drunk we're as happy as can be. For we are the drunk and disorderly.”

The basement at Legends, where the supporters were gathered, is filled with soccer folklore. The first floor on the entry level, with its mahogany interior, scarcely suggests that this is a meeting point for some of the most ardent soccer fans in the city, but when you make your way down the dark stairway to the left of the entrance, the extent of the sport’s immersion on the place starts unraveling. The walls around the staircase are adorned with pictures and the basement is a soccer fan’s haven. Even the bronzed pipes on the ceilings are garlanded with scarves of clubs from across the globe—from the rich and the famous, the Manchester United’s and the Real Madrid’s, to the smaller and the less famed, the Stoke City’s and the Urawa Red Diamonds’. There is a giant screen on top of the bar—itself on the middle of a big, open chamber that sandwiches two rows filled with circular tables—and there are smaller television screens all across the basement. It is in the middle, open spaces that the Newcastle fans often gather.

“What I love about our club is that when a Geordie comes over to New York, he or she knows where to go,” said Smith, “When tourists come here, I’ve heard this so many times—when his wife is out shopping, a guy is here watching Newcastle, he’s had a few beers and then he tells me, ‘Dean, best part of the trip so far.’ It’s just great. When you travel 3,000 miles, and you go and meet a bunch of people, who are likeminded and have a similar passion, it’s like for two hours, just watch Newcastle, that’s just amazing, that’s one of the things that I absolutely love about the club, when tourists come here and know us.”

Paul Kiddell, who retired from Britain’s Royal Air Force last year, is one such tourist who visited Legends to watch Newcastle play Chelsea with his wife and friends. “Pubs in England would rarely have mixed fans,” he said. “But the atmosphere here is very similar to what you'd find in an English stadium.”

Football fandom is a truly monogamous phenomenon, “the lengthiest emotional connection we make,” in the words of Alan Edge, the author of Faith of our Fathers, a book on his lifelong love for Liverpool. As, Terje Brattelid, a fan of SK Brann—a Norwegian club based in Bergen—told me, “you can change your home, you can change your wife or your girlfriend, you can change anything, but you can’t change your football club.”

Or as Smith said: “You ask people back home and they’ll tell you, ‘it’s passion, it’s my team, it’s my identity. This is me. I am Newcastle. Cut my wrists and I’ll bleed black and white.’ For a lot of people back home, it’s life. When there’s a hard time, whether it’s in University with your studies or with your wife, or you’re on the rocks getting a divorce, there’s always Newcastle. It’s a getaway. You are in a different world. For two hours or whatever it is, all that matters is Newcastle.”

For Smith, as it is for most others in Toon Army NYC, watching Newcastle play is about more than just the sport. This is a club that hasn’t won a trophy in several decades, yet the passion in its fans has shown little signs of dying down. There is a special irrational transcendence to the act of supporting Newcastle. Watching the fans sing, without a worry in the world, when down 5-0 against Tottenham Hotspur in February seemed, on the face of it, to be preposterous. Their team was hapless on the day, cut to ribbons by a gorgeous Spurs performance, but here they were celebrating. It wasn’t so much an act of defiance, as it was an act of showcasing support, showcasing a bond that, apparently, only soccer can knit together.

It is this aspect of fandom—the societal ties that it creates—that prompted Keane to pull out all the stops in facilitating the creation of supporters clubs. Keane, 43, who combines a barman's affability with a businessman's nous, has sparkling blue eyes, a beak-like nose, and close-cropped greying hair. Born in Ireland, he moved to New York in 1993, and almost immediately put his ideas into motion at Nevada Smiths, where he managed the bar. “They were showing no football then. I invented the concept,” he said, “There were other places, which were showing some games, but they were regular sports bars, not a dedicated football bar. I wanted to make Nevada’s a place where football would be the only game and nothing else will ever take precedence over it. And that’s what I established and no one did that prior to me doing it in the early 90s.”

Nevada Smiths, under Keane’s stewardship became the city’s most prominent soccer junction. Regardless of which team you supported—whether it was one of the big clubs, the Liverpool’s or the Barcelona’s, or the lesser-known clubs, the SK Brann’s and the Brighton & Hove Albion’s—Nevada’s was the place to go to. It fostered an atmosphere for watching soccer that couldn’t have been replicated in most other parts of the world. It involved fans of different clubs coming together under the same roof, and watching the soccer together, but without losing their unique sense of identity. It was about creating an atmosphere that was religious in its intensity.

“I didn’t want to go to a bar where there’s only Newcastle; I love mingling with other fans,” said Smith. “There’s fun in that. You can’t do it in England. Things can kick off there at any time. I love the fact that we can have a bit of banter, mingle with other fans, talk some shit, but all in good fun.”

Keane, who lives in West 44th Street, close enough for him to dash to Legends whenever he needs to, wants to create a legacy. “I don’t even consider this a job,” he said. “It’s more a devotion for me. I just want to establish this venue as the most famous one in the world for coming to watch football on television.”

Spectating, almost by definition, appears to refer to the act of watching a game in person. But the culture of watching sports in a bar—something that has existed for many years in the U.S.—is still a relatively new concept globally. And the concept certainly didn’t extend at a concerted level to watching soccer in the U.S. until Keane’s efforts at Nevada’s.

Some of Keane’s fondest memories involve watching soccer when he was growing up in the ’70s, memories that have prompted him to “give something back” to the game he loves. “The best part of my week was watching Match of the Day on Saturday—the highlights from the English leagues—and following Man United, my team, on radio for the European games,” he said. “My dad used to often hand me the radio for a mid-week cup game or whatever it was, and I’d listen very closely, and follow every team. I remember watching the ’74 World Cup final even though I was only seven. We had just got a color T.V. and I remember vividly the orange shirts of the Dutch team. It’s been a fascination since then.”

When Keane left Nevada’s due to a disagreement with the owners in the spring of 2010, a protest ensued, and many supporters clubs, including Toon Army NYC and Manchester United’s New York fan club, shifted out of Nevada’s. “We tried meeting in a few other places, but once we heard that Jack was starting off here at Legends, it was a straightforward decision. He’s always been brilliant to us,” said Terence Leonard, a long-time Newcastle fan.

At Legends, Keane has replicated what he achieved at Nevada’s on a grander scale. The space in the bar allows fans of different clubs to find their respective corners, and helps create an almost stadium-like atmosphere. The bar can serve as a virtual football venue, as Mike Weed, a professor of sport in society at the Canterbury Christ Church University pointed out in a 2007 essay in Soccer and Society. It widens, as Weed wrote, the concept of a shared communal experience, which is at the “crux of understanding the nature of the sport spectating experience itself.” Weed touches upon John Bale’s work, in which Bale had referred to three spectating environments during the Euro ‘92 final between Denmark and Germany: the stadium, the homes of millions of television viewers, and the open space of the Faelled in Denmark, which sought to combine the two elements—a huge television screen in open space. Bale felt that those who watched the game in the open space took part in a “form of carnival” with drunken fans celebrating the small nation’s victory over Germany: “Who is to say the experience of the Faelled was anything but the optimal sporting experience for late modernity—thousands watched in open spaces … standing in opposition to the panopticised confinement which the modern stadium enforces.” Weed extends Bale’s argument to pubs and bars, where a “social space is transformed into a sporting place” by adding soccer spectators. The basement at Legends works on precisely the same premise, for which Keane has shown an acute understanding.

“We have modeled our area in the basement on the lines of a stadium,” Keane said. “Apart from the seating areas, we have a large area in the middle where people stand, and that represents the terrace.” It is in this terrace where you can see between thirty and fifty of Newcastle United’s New York fans, packed like sardines, chanting with unabashed zeal Saturday after Saturday.

Smith feels that in England, soccer bars seldom boast an atmosphere like at Legends. “You don’t get the same kind of singing there in the pubs,” he said. “Here we can have a nice sing-song, a bit of banter, it’s a very different atmosphere. It’s the closest you can get to the feel of being inside a stadium."

It’s difficult to gauge what a fan gets in return for his emotional investment in a soccer club. Smith has devoted so much of his life to Newcastle United. You can see the pain and anguish on his face when the team loses, just as much as the joy, which is palpable when they are flying high. But even when your team has, seemingly, hit rock bottom, there is something to look forward to: the next game. That in some ways is the beauty of fandom. Watching the supporters follow the fortunes of their clubs over the course of a season at Legends served as a microcosmic lesson on fandom itself.

“Look, we aren’t contributing to the result in any way by supporting Newcastle from here,” Smith said. “But it’s a club that we all love, a club that knits us together as one. It’s the camaraderie that comes with it. We are a family. And that’s why I try and come here every Saturday morning, as early as it may be. For those two hours I’m in a different world.”


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Comments

Good stuff. Glad you mentioned Weed's work on watching sport in the pub. It's where my mind went immediately when I saw this piece. There's definitely a book-length project here about the process of community building taking place here and how it has possibly replaced the stadium as the site for sport fan community building. It could be a brilliant ethnography.