In his latest USA blog for the official Chelsea website, Stephen Rea discusses how football stadia has changed and why he prefers sitting close to the dugouts...
I’ve been watching professional football for 42 years. The best seat I’ve ever had at a game was for Chelsea’s visit to Chicago in 2006. My friend’s dad is friends with Steve Clarke, at the time our assistant coach (and former player of course), and he gave us free tickets. They were superb, about five rows from the front near the halfway line, although we lost 1-0 to the MLS All-Stars.
But this week my view at a match was even better. At least for most of the time, because I was so close to the pitch that the opposition manager blocked my view of our winning goal.
By a happy and fortuitous coincidence, my daughter’s spring break coincided with Northern Ireland’s home double-header in the Euro 2020 qualifiers against Estonia and Belarus. I made a late decision to fly from New Orleans to Charlotte to pick her up and take her to Belfast, though by the time I booked the flights both ties were almost sold out. The only tickets left were the most expensive ones at £70 each.
The contests at Windsor Park were only my second and third at the national stadium since it was extensively redeveloped, and now it’s unrecognisable from the rickety wooden dilapidated venue I remember. We were located beside the dugouts and the only spectators in front of us were a squad of paramedics.
I love being so near to the action. It can be hard to judge the position of the play near ground level, and sometimes you urge the striker to shoot, not realising he is 40 yards from goal. But what you lose in positional perspective you more than make up for by seeing and hearing everything up close. You hear the players talk to each other, listen to the coaching staff bark instructions, appreciate how fast the sport is played at international level.
We were almost too close. We had to crane our necks to see around the linesman at times, and stand and strain to look past the Belarusian manager Igor Kriushenko, who spent the entire 90 plus minutes on his feet.
Northern Ireland beat the Eastern Europeans with a winner three minutes from time. I missed the ball hit the back of the net thanks to Mr Kriushenko’s body, but no matter. From Belfast in March to Boston in May, the victory will keep me happy until I see Chelsea play the New England Revolution back across the Atlantic.