A Stateside Manchester Derby With No Fans
There's history in rivalry and the Manchester Derby has more history than it knows what to do with. First played in 1881 when both teams had different names (City was St. Mark's and United was Newton Heath) and ended in a 3-1 win for United, the Mancunian grudge match has become one of the greatest local rivalries in all of sports.
So when they advertised the first Manchester Derby to take place outside of the UK in Houston, I knew I had to go. Okay, granted I came to that conclusion the night before the game and happened to score some pretty awesome tickets secondhand. I'm a Chelsea fan after all.
The first thing I noticed after entering NRG Stadium was the overwhelming amount of red. It was easy to see that United was the bigger club and they had the supporters to prove it. Our tickets placed us right next to the United Supporters section and I was ready for a wild and fun time. As the players cam out of the tunnel, fans were pretty excited to see some of the biggest football stars in the world.
Yaya Toure, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne definitely weren't too keen on the dry ice entrance. It was a bit bombastic, but for a crowd used to an NFL type spectacle, it felt appropriate. Then the whistle blew for the start of the match and I sat there perplexed as the crowd went silent around me.
I was in the supporters section, wasn't I?
To be sure, the stadium was pretty packed with over 67,000 people in attendance, it just didn't feel like a football match of this magnitude. The United supporters mustered up the courage to sing one song in the second half when their team was up 2-0, but it was lackluster at best.
A Proper Match
One thing I wasn't expecting, United played some of their stars for the entire match. This was a pre-season friendly and status quo is to field a decent team and rotate heavily but the likes of Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku lasted the whole 90 minutes.
One of the highlights for me was getting to watch Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne. He spent a few years on Chelsea's payroll finishing off with a loan stent in Werder Bremen before transferring to VfL Wolfsburg. He's definitely one player I wish we would've kept hold of but at the time just couldn't find a spot to slot into the Chelsea side.
As the game moved on I was more and more amazed at how little the fans seemed to care. Sure it was a friendly and all, but when has anything with the Manchester Derby been friendly? The only life I saw in the crowd was when they showed Pep Guardiola on the screen and the mostly United crowd booed until they changed the shot. I've watched better crowd atmosphere at the local Houston Dynamo games with singing, chants and general raucousness. There's supposed to be a bit of pride and zeal to supporting your team and it was definitely missing at NRG Stadium.
The Big Belgian
My favorite fan was the guy directly in front of me wearing a Marouane Fellaini jersey and carrying a Belgian flag. Anytime Fallaini, DeBruyne or Lukaku came close to the cornere, his flag was up and he was cheering as loud as he possibly could. That's a fan spirit I can get behind and was sorely lacking in the rest of the crowd.
For a pre-season matchup, the first Manchester Derby outside the UK lived up to the hype, even if the fans didn't. Not a bad way to start off the Year of Football.
All photos and video copyright Journey and Play 2017.