This past season has been one of the most enjoyable for me as a Newcastle fan. I know it sounds daft, but my enjoyment has nearly nothing to do with the lads' performance on the pitch. It was the season I chose to interact with Newcastle fans from all over the world. It was the season I stopped watching matches on my own every weekend and met the greatest community of fans any professional sports team has on the planet.
The roots started late in the 2013/14 season when I met fellow Toon fan Phil. We met in March of 2014 to watch Newcastle beat Crystal Palace 1-0 at home. Cisse scored the lone goal, ending his extensive goalless drought. Sitting in front of us was another Newcastle fan, Brian. We talked about the match, his travels to the UK for matches, and getting organized. We decided to unite Newcastle fans from all over Chicagoland, and Toon Army Chicago was born.
The most exciting thing to come out of the planning stages of our group were travel plans. Brian offered me cheap flights through his employer, a major international airline. Naturally I took him up on the offer for a pair of matches, one home and one away.
I also made trips across the USA and watched matches with a couple other Toon Army Groups. I caught a match with Toon Army NYC over Labor Day weekend, a pair of matches with Toon Army St. Louis while visiting family, and met with Toon supporters for the first Toon Army USA meet-up for the Wear-Tyne derby.
Crystal Palace (H) in New York City - August 30, 2014
My first travels since starting Toon Army Chicago just so happened to be to New York. Toon Army NYC is the largest Toon supporters group in the USA. It was also the first time Victoria got to see her design full-sized. Needless to say, it was a big hit.
Their home bar, the Football Factory, is mammoth. It is in the basement of Legends in Manhattan, right across the street from the Empire State Building. It is a dark slab of concrete with football memorabilia on the walls, including scarves, flags, and even some signed shirts.
Even with the holiday weekend, there were still around 30 people gathered to watch the match. My fiancée and her friend stayed for a while, but they quickly left to find sunlight and food. Meanwhile, I watched one of the most controversial matches of the season, the 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace. The late drama, unexplained 7 minutes of stoppage time, and Alan Pardew's excuse of the players getting too excited from the crowd all made for one of the more bizarre matches of the young season.
The atmosphere was absolutely incredible. Everyone was singing the entire 90 minutes, and the beer selection was superb. Chats before, at half time, and after the match were also great. Everyone was extremely welcoming, intrigued about the Toon Army Chicago flag and how things were going back at home. It was an amazing time, and I knew I would have to come back to New York for more matches in the future.
Leicester (H) and Manchester United (A) in St. Louis
St. Louis is a footy mad town and has been for decades. Their extensive community league programs predate many in the USA. Their involvement with US Soccer will forever live in US Soccer folklore. Most of the team that beat England in 1950 played together in St. Louis.
It is no surprise that Newcastle United and their massive international fan base has a supporters' group in St. Louis. Also in their first year, Toon Army St. Louis was a great mix of people. Their home pub, Tigin, was a stark contrast to the Football Factory. The biggest difference was lighting. Unlike the (very) dark Football Factory, it was lit up by natural sunlight! It is a very novel concept, but it was a nice change of pace. Their group was around the same size we had in Chicago at the time, and it was a much more chill atmosphere. We all cheered when goals were scored, and we had great discussion about the Club, their personnel moves, and what we wanted to see from the Club. They recently finalized their flag design, and as you can tell, it looks fantastic.
Their admin Tony has curated a very solid and fun group in its first year. Look for them to grow in numbers, and look them up when you are anywhere near St. Louis the day of a match. You can also find Tony at any of STLFC's matches this summer.
Sunderland (A) in New York City - Toon Army America Meet-Up
This was the one that everyone was waiting for. Newcastle fans came from as far away as San Francisco and Dallas to hopefully end our losing streak against the mackems. The atmosphere was nothing else I have experienced in my travels in the States. I described it as the closest thing to an away day atmosphere you can get in the States.
I once again traveled with my fiancée for this trip, and we did our fair share of exploring New York, including Central Park, 1 World Trade Center, and Battery Park. We met up with Toon Army NYC's admin Dean for pints the night before and met up again the following morning.
When we walked into Legends that morning, the buzz was incredible. Flags from all over the USA were hung all over the Football Factory's walls and railings. Pictures galore were taken, and many pints were consumed. We all know how well that match went, and the insult to injury was watching the 3 brave mackems cheering in the corner as we sung our heads off for 90 minutes.
All in all, my travels in the US were amazing. I know more Toon Army groups are popping up all over the USA, and I hope we can all come together for the 2nd annual Toon Army USA meet-up this upcoming season. This year's meet-up will be hosted by Toon Army Dallas, and details will be made public when they are available.
I hope to see all of you coming to Milwaukee for the first preseason match. If you make it to any of the 3 matches in the States, I hope you have a good time and enjoy many a pint with your fellow Toon supporters.