I’m just back from Chicago where I watched a Premier League match alongside more Chelsea fans than I have in my 15 years living in the States.
I was in Illinois to go to an American football game between the Bears and the New Orleans Saints, so with the Blues’ fixture against Newcastle kicking off at 9am two Saturdays ago, I got to visit the local supporters’ club.
Chicago is the USA’s third-largest city, and with a metro area population close to 10 million inhabitants you would expect them to have a sizable turnout. But that’s not always the case on this side of the Atlantic.
Los Angeles for instance is so sprawling that fans’ groups are dotted around the region. Similarly, Houston is another expansive city, meaning some followers of the Londoners there drive the guts of an hour to reach the pub that acts as headquarters. It takes dedication to make a round-trip of two hours - longer than the contest lasts! - every week for a run-of-the-mill league match.
Chicago though is relatively negotiable, and supporters meet at the Graystone Tavern around six miles north of the city centre. More than 100 customers crammed inside, at an hour when most of the city’s drinking establishments are not even open. Brian Wolff, head of the Chicago Blues, told me the crowd size was typical, but that for big games they can attract 400 or more.
Like many Chelsea clubs for fans in America, they bounced around different bars before finding a suitable home. He said the Tavern owners were friendly and accommodating, bringing in extra staff and opening predawn for early kickoffs.
In Louisiana it’s rare for us to have more than a handful of Blues supporters, and I had forgotten what it is like to be in a packed pub with everyone rooting for the same side: the fans singing; chanting; cheering and groaning as one.
When Marcos Alonso’s winning goal hit the net, a wave of joyous emotion swept over the bar like an all-encompassing tidal wave. The fans celebrated with their unique Chicago shot - which is Chelsea blue, of course.
Afterwards I found myself chatting to Brian, Mike from Latvia, and Carlos, from Peru. Four supporters from four different countries on three different continents - all cheering on the Blues after being blown into the Windy City.