In the late 80’s a college classmate and I who were studying abroad attended an FA cup quarterfinal between Nottingham Forest and Arsenal at Highbury in northern London. As an away supporter – I was and am a Nottingham Forest fan – strict protocol was in place to protect my safety. Along with hundreds of other Forest fans, we were funneled into the visitors’ entrance gate flanked by riot police on horseback.
Saturday, I attended an MLS regular season game between the Houston Dynamo and Minnesota United at BBVA Compass stadium as an away supporter. A security guard named Rick escorted myself and the eight other United supporters – proudly decked out in United T-shirts, carrying scarves, and waving two Dark Clouds flags – to the stadium one hour before kick off. We didn’t have our own entrance, but Rick was nearby in case anything went wrong.
For the past two hours I had been consorting with the enemy. The Texian Army invited the away supporters to a tailgate at the Garden Fortune Cookie Lot about three blocks from BBVA Compass Stadium. Here we were treated to tacos al pastor, a keg of cold beer, and some good yarns.
The Texian Army is one of three Dynamo supporters clubs. As one member explained it, the three clubs consist of a Hispanic group, a hippy group, and the Texian Army, which he called a “hodgepodge.” Jeff, another member, corrected him to call the hippy group more of a punk subset. The small urban lot that serves as the Army’s pregame meeting place had music blaring from a speaker in the back of a pickup truck, a sizable grill, and a moving truck full of flags, banners and other necessary supporter supplies. Almost everybody there wore orange, and shared a disdain for FC Dallas. When we first arrived, one member proudly proclaimed, “I have more orange shirts than anybody.”
As the evening waned towards game time, I continued to engage Jeff in conversation. One way to get a feel for a given subculture is to listen to the stories they have to tell, and Jeff had plenty. At the end of an FC Dallas game some years ago, as Jeff tells it, some Texian Army members set off several smoke bombs – which are strictly forbidden in MLS stadiums. They were immediately evicted, but the game was nearly over anyway.
When the Army attended a game at Sporting Kansas City a few weeks later – which took place at the minor league baseball stadium that served as Sporting’s home between Arrowhead Stadium and Children’s Mercy Park – the security guards at the stadium were already suspicious and let it be known that no funny business would be tolerated. I wanted to know how a guy gets a smoke bomb into a game past security guards that are already on edge, and the answer is that a female Army member stashes the bombs in her bra, then stows them in the porta potty for a fellow Texian to pick and deploy at the proper moment – which is late enough in the game that you don’t mind missing what’s left. The carefully executed plan struck me as a mash up of a spy novel and an episode of The Simpsons.
These antics were far from anyone’s mind for Saturday’s contest at BBVA Compass. From my vantage point in the supporters’ row across the very orange stadium, the Texian Army waved flags, sang, and made a lot of wholesome noise, but did not engage in any untoward hijinks.
The Texian Army had plenty of reason to chant with extra enthusiasm once the game got rolling too, as the Dynamo rang up United for two goals before the first half was done. The small but spirited away supporter’s section, high up and to the right of the Dynamo’s goal, were able to employ the patented “we’re not losing” chant only for about 14 minutes before Mauro Manotas gathered a cross and had time to drill the ball into the left corner. By the end of the half, I was feeling pretty morose about our daunting two-goal deficit and hoping against hope that the game didn’t spiral into a lopsided loss. The wounds of early season blowouts still loom large in the fragile psyche of Minnesota United fans.
Flashing back to London 1989, it was the away supporters who had most of the fun on that day. When Franz Carr scored to put Forest up 2-1 at the goal immediately in front of the Forest supporters’ section, some 2,000 of us went nuts. We were standing in the now-outlawed terraces, which means that we didn’t have assigned seats because there weren’t any. We stood on wide terraced steps, interspersed with occasional steel support bars fans could lean on. After each Nottingham Forest goal, I jumped up and down, hugged strangers, and was moved several feet from my original spot by the mash of excited bodies in motion.
As the celebration of Carr’s goal began to die down, a particularly tall supporter to my right was hit in the head by a pound coin thrown by one of the disgruntled Arsenal fans in the section – separated by a fence of course – immediately to our left. The row of helmeted police holding Plexiglass shields that flank the away supporters section can’t prevent everything. My fellow supporter wasn’t seriously hurt and didn’t consider leaving the game, but his forehead was bleeding visibly. After the goal celebration that ensued when Nottingham Forest put the game on ice with tally number three, it actually took a few minutes to relocate my classmate in the crowd, because the mass of bodies had moved us in different directions.
Back at BBVA Compass Stadium, when Christian Ramirez rose up at the far post to nod home a corner kick in the 46th minute and rekindle hope in the away supporters’ section, there was a slight delay in our reaction. The blessed event took place at the goal on the opposite side of the field to our right, and for few moments we stared in disbelief before we saw Ramirez celebrating. All nine of us had plenty of room to jump up and down and yell for about 15 – 20 seconds. Afterwards, we had the good sense to wave our flags and hold up our scarves in the event that we ended up on television.
Twelve minutes later, when Kevin Molino parted the Red Sea along the right flank, I had a very good feeling. When an attacking player carries the ball that deep into the opposing penalty area, the defenders have no choice but to shift away from center in order to react to the very real threat it presents. Molino released the ball at that crucial moment when he had attracted enough attention so as to leave the far side of the goalmouth unprotected, and Johan Venegas found Molino’s deflected pass and slotted it home. Bedlam in the 9-strong supporters section ensued. I jumped up and down like a kid. I yelled myself hoarse. The Dynamo fans a few rows below us slumped in their orange seats, but no one so much as gave us a menacing look.
The spirits of the Nifty Nine – as I shall heretofore call the contingent of proud Minnesota United supporters that came together on that fine evening – were quite high as we left the stadium following the dramatic come-from-behind point on the road. Our departure was not nearly as tense as the exit from Highbury back in the day, when police on horseback guided a wary but still chanting mass of Nottingham Forest supporters through a network of cordoned streets all the way to the metro station where they watched us onto a series of trains specifically appointed to ferret us away from the very real threat of angry Arsenal supporters.
In this instance, Rick the security guard showed up shortly after the final whistle to escort us out of BBVA Compass Stadium. We chatted amiably – his daughter as it turns out is stationed in North Dakota and they will be meeting up in Minneapolis later this month. The Nifty Nine dropped off one by one as we went our separate ways. Rick walked my accomplice and me all the way to the intersection kitty corner form our parking spot. We shook hands, he thanked us for coming, then we got into a white Subaru and sped off into the Texas night.