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Stephen Rea

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The Healing Power of Football
by Stephen Rea   
Not "rated" by the Author.
Last edited: Monday, January 12, 2009
Posted: Monday, January 12, 2009

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Stephen Rea

The Storm Gathers
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A sporting event brings joy to broken Katrina evacuees

I was in Valencia when we beat Spain. I was at Windsor to see us defeat Israel to qualify for the World Cup. I saw Ian Stewart's winner against Germany in 1982, I was in Bucharest for the victory over Romania in 1985, and I was at Wembley when we qualified for the Mexico World Cup. 

And I was in Las Vegas for last week's victory over England. 

It followed the worst seven days of our lives. As Katrina took aim, we fled New Orleans at the last minute with little more than the clothes on our backs, battling to stay ahead of the storm on a frightening rollercoaster of a journey. Our adopted city was battered by the winds, drowned by the flood waters, burned by the fires. The remnants then self-destructed in an orgy of looting and lawlessness. A week after evacuating to California, we still didn't know what we had left to return to, or — more importantly — what had happened to friends who chose to stay behind. 

After becoming increasingly depressed by the non-stop TV news coverage, we took a road trip to the near-deserted desert states of Utah and Arizona. But after a 1,400-mile loop, we were within an hour of Las Vegas and thoughts turned to the game. It was on in an English bar miles from the glitzy strip and I followed a fleet of taxis crammed with tourists to the remote British outpost near the airport. Despite arriving at 11 a.m. - almost an hour before kick-off - it was so busy staff were outside directing traffic away from the congestion. 

The cover charge was $20 cash. I had $21 left after our journey. 

In America, pubs order a season-long package of live games and you can either pay an entrance fee for individual matches or buy a season ticket for unlimited access. This is what I had done in New Orleans for Finn McCool's, our friendly football venue run by Lurgan couple Stephen and Pauline Patterson. The night before, American bar staff had insisted on giving us free drinks and tee-shirts when they heard we were evacuees, but when I approached the English girl on the door and showed her my New Orleans driving license and asked could she waive the charge as I had already bought a season pass, she dismissed the request with a shake of her head. 

At Finn McCool’s in New Orleans, we had been talking about this game for months. I had flown back for the Old Trafford match and had taken a load of stick from some of the English patrons. I had been eagerly anticipating some good-natured banter with the close-knit group of ex-pats. Many had booked the day off work so we could watch it live on a sultry Louisiana Wednesday afternoon. My father had even sent me a brand new Northern Ireland top to wear. But instead my small frame was engulfed by an XXL tee-shirt donated by my 6-foot, 6-inch friend Gordon Sheals. I was marooned 1,800 miles away in an ocean of English strangers with my friends scattered to the four corners of the United States. 

Inside was a heaving mass of red and white. Conference attendees from Liverpool, gamblers from Bristol and families from Sunderland mobbed the bar and shouted orders at the swamped barmaid. I corkscrewed my way though a 300-strong crowd to a spot in front of the big screen — with just a single dollar in my wallet. I didn't need to fight my way back to the bar. The Londoner on my right asked me to watch his Prada carrier bag while he went to the bathroom. The Brummie on my left told his mate,: "I don't know any of their team. We'll murder this lot. Easy." The first chant of "Inger-lund" started up. 

My phone rang and it was Dave Ashton from Manchester, a physiotherapist who had stayed in New Orleans treating patients right up until the hurricane hit. His pregnant girlfriend's mother died in the evacuation and they had escaped on a camping trip to New Mexico. He told me to call him with the result. 

Forty-five minutes flew by and at half-time I spotted a sliver of green elbow his way to the bar. Samuel Gunnion, 22, is a forklift driver from Newtownards who moved to Vegas four years ago. I waved him over and he said, "We're doing great, mate, we could nick this you know." I gave him the patronizing smile his youthful confidence deserved and told him that we'd tire and then the English quality would show. 

But as the game wore on, I started to believe, as well. Then King David struck that shot just as sweetly as Gerry had done 23 years before. 

For a heartbeat, the bar fell silent. You would have heard David Beckham's diamond earring drop. Then Sam and I went nuts. 

Real, honest-to-goodness, jumping-up-and-punching-the-air, stepping-on-people's-toes, careening-into-everyone-while-yelling-at-the-top-of-our-voices and hugging-each-other-as-we-screamed hysterically nuts. I have watched football matches for nearly 30 years on all six inhabited continents. Never have I had such an outpouring of emotion after a goal. 

My head spun like a roulette wheel as the mood around us darkened from mild anxiety to deep frustration. English fans kicked the ground and slammed down pints as the mood turned menacing. "Do you want a drink, mucker?" asked Sam. 

"There's five minutes left - don't risk going to the bar," I replied, not wanting him to miss anything but also keen not to be left alone. 

"I can't take the tension — I need a drink," he said and disappeared, thankfully returning swiftly as space opened up around us. Three Lions supporters melted away. Whether it was because they thought there would be glasses flying through the air in our direction, or whether they just didn't want to stand beside the only two people in the packed pub cheering on the boys in green, we'll never know. 

When the sign went up for four minutes of injury time, we roared insults at the screen but they were lost in the increasingly-desperate howling from the English. But finally, beautifully, it was all over. Northern Ireland supporters know some of our results in the last few years have been enough to bring tears to your eyes. But 1982 was the last time I was so proud of a performance it made me cry. 

My first thought was for my old school friend Gordon, a fanatical Northern Ireland fan, who had come to our rescue the week before. He had arranged our flight from Texas, lent us clothes and a car and opened his home to us. He and his wife, Dawn, had made a last minute 12,000-mile dash from California just for the match, and I imagined him smiling now in the North Stand. Sometimes good things do happen to good people. 

The Englishmen around us grabbed our shoulders, but they only wanted to shake our hands and offer congratulations. One looked me dead in the eye and said: "Well done. Northern Ireland deserved it." And we did. Sam and I hugged and I told him to come and visit when New Orleans is rebuilt. Two exiled, out-numbered Ulstermen who came together on the edge of the Nevada desert and will forever share the memory of the day we defeated England. 

We blinked our way into the blazing sun and 110-degree heat. After four days in the hot arid climate after living in humid Louisiana my lips were cracked and bleeding, my head was throbbing from the excitement and my throat was hoarse from a mixture of the desert wind and shouting during the match. But I looked at the sullen faces of the pasty-skinned English fans in the taxi queue snaking its red-and-white way around the bar, and for the first time since Katrina hit, I felt great. 

Until my dying day I'll remember being in Valencia the night we beat Spain in 1982. And I'll always remember being in Las Vegas the morning we beat England in 2005.  

Web Site: Irish American Post



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