I was driving my son Abe and his pal to a soccer match the other week when conversation turned to jerseys. This pair of 13 year old budding Messis were unhappy with the kits they have to wear on their school teams. Apparently, the fact the shirts and shorts aren’t even “Nike or Adidas” is a cause of great embarrassment to these chancers. To hear them whine about this stuff is to understand how spoilt this generation of children really are.
Having listened to their caterwauling (“even Under Armour would be an improvement”), I did what I always do in these circumstances. I broke out some stories from the Cork of my childhood, about shirts that soaked up the water when it rained, and jerseys made of wonderfully itchy material that gave us rashes. They sat there stunned to hear there was once a deprived, obviously underprivileged world where aspiring young athletes didn’t have Nike swooshes or Adidas stripes on their shirts.
Unlike some tall tales from my childhood I usually bore them with, I wasn’t lying either. Indeed, to hammer home my point, I told them about the single, most glamorous kit worn by any Cork schoolboys team in the early 1980s. That honour went to Wilton United. I recall walking into Farranlea Park as part of a crack Summerstown United squad and being shocked to see our opponents wearing a proper kit. I don’t mean that they were all wearing roughly the same shirts and shorts, this was an actual kit.
On closer inspection, I discovered that the logo on the front was that of the New York Cosmos. As the type of trainspotter soccer fan who used to devour Shoot! magazine every Thursday, I recognised it immediately. Back then Shoot! used to devote a page to the North American Soccer League (NASL) and I would pour over photographs of games played in strange stadia on blue astroturf. Against Wilton that day, we were beaten before we ever kicked a ball. We looked like Raggyball Rovers, unfit to share the same space as players looking resplendent in their freshly-imported shirts. They may also have been better at soccer than us.
Over the years I’ve heard various stories about how Wilton United managed to get their hands on that beautiful kit. My favourite version revolved around Brother Alfie, one of the dynamos behind the club in those days, writing to the Cosmos (then owned by the impossibly rich Warner Bros Corporation), telling them how he was using sport to keep children off the streets, and subsequently receiving boxes and boxes of gear.
If it’s a fair distance from Farranlea Road to James M. Shuart Stadium on Long Island, the two are forever linked in my imagination. See, this past two months, I’ve been a regular at the home matches of the resurgent New York Cosmos. Twenty-nine years after going out of existence, the club has been reborn and started playing in the NASL, a professional division that’s now a level below Major League Soccer (MLS). In perhaps the neatest thing about the revival, they are wearing the exact same shirts they used back in the day. Hence, every time I see them walk onto the field, I think of Wilton United.
There are some differences. Wilton had some good players but nobody to match Marcos Senna, the former Spanish international who is bulwarking the Cosmos midfield. Now 37 and obviously way past his prime, I was worried Senna’s arrival might be all about taking easy money from gullible Americans. It hasn’t been. Watching the way he works in the final minutes of games, especially if the team are chasing an equalizer or a winner, you can see that here’s somebody who’s serious about giving value for money to his new employers.
There are other surprising things about this experiment too. It’s amazing how quickly you get absorbed into the routine of supporting a club. For home games, we park in the same spot, arrive at the same time, and myself and Abe now nod heads at fellow fans who sit near our seats. In the space of a few matches over a few weeks, we’ve become something of a community. There were 12,000 there the first night and half of them probably came just to see Pele walking on the field in the pre-game ceremony. The average since then has been around 7000 but it’s a good sign that it’s the same people coming back every fortnight or so.
For me, what started out as a curio has become a passion. I’d never seen the Cosmos play a game before this August yet even that first night, I was on my feet with my arms in the air after Alessandro Noselli’s injury time goal clinched a win over the Fort Lauderdale Strikers (another name that brought back memories of Shoot!’s coverage of the NASL). I suppose seeing professional football in the flesh is such a novelty and the fact they’ve made Long Island their home has suckered me in. Myself and Abe now follow away games on the computer. Truly a sign we’ve bought into the club.
In many ways, the mood and atmosphere around the whole enterprise reminds me of what things were like at Flower Lodge when Cork City first opened for business back in 1984. Nobody was quite sure how things were going to go or where things were going to end up for the team with the Guinness logo emblazoned across their chest. But, everybody was so happy to have a League of Ireland club back in town that they just wanted to be there.
It’s definitely a bit like that with the Cosmos. With a lot of money behind the club, they are the richest outfit in the NASL, apparently destined to win the title, yet are unlikely to be brought into MLS any time soon because New York City FC (owned by the New York Yankees and Manchester City) will be joining that league in 2015. Much like down the Lodge in the 80s, we aren’t going to worry too much about the long term. Right now, we just want to enjoy the ride.