Saturday, 11 June 2016

FC United in America 2016

In one of those "am I dreaming?" moments, FC United of Manchester were invited over to Detroit to play Detroit City FC in a friendly match to mark the grand opening of their redeveloped Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck, which they had funded through a community share scheme, in the same way FC raised a fair chunk of the cash needed to build Broadhurst Park. So with half a mind to visit NYC this year anyway, I decided it was a good compromise to do this trip with a few other places thrown in. Hursty was up for it as well, so we came up with a plan and jetted off to the US of A for a week.

Of course, it couldn't start smoothly, and trying to get through the American Airlines check in at terminal 3 was an absolute ballache. An apparent blockage in the baggage system, despite every other check in desk working perfectly... But 2 hours later we were finally through security with just enough time to queue up at the gate. The flight itself was okay, but dragged a bit, particularly towards the end. But then just when you thought you were past the worst, the queue at Chicago O'Hare to clear customs was ridiculous, moved from one line to another, then another, then another. Eventually we got through after chatting with a fella from Denver who was due to miss his flight because of the security queue and got the metro to the hotel.

It was a fairly late arrival and we were both knackered, so after faffing around with the fact that the hotel had booked us in a room with one bed rather than two (perils of using Hotwire) we decided to walk round to a nearby pizza place, because y'know, when in Chicago... However, it had started bouncing down with possibly the longest lasting thunderstorm I've ever known. But still, we made it, soaked, had the largest, most filling pizza I've ever had, then walked back again through the still raging storm, via a brief respite stop in a late opening Barnes and Nobel.

The next morning we wandered down to the Oak Street Beach on the shore of Lake Michigan and followed the Lakeshore trail for a while, cutting off into Millenium Park and stumbling across the sculpture Cloud Gate, otherwise known as the bean, a reflective, bean shaped structure that really had to be seen to be believed. In itself, it's nothing spectacular, but through in the reflective qualities and the visual effects of it were stunning.

After marvelling at that and wandering through back off the park and into the city, we grabbed a cab back to the hotel before getting the metro out to Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, for a tour. As a part-time baseball fan second and a groundhopper first, this was a very enjoyable experience as we wandered around with a tour guide who was a dead ringer for Alistair Cook. A place to go back to for a game if the chance arises.

From there we went straight to US Cellular Field, the home of the more successful Chicago White Sox. No tour and the cold, corporate exterior and surroundings left a lot to be desired. After an unsuccessful attempt to find a view into the stadium we gave up and headed to the neighbourhood of Pilsen and got food at Carnitas Uruapan, a Mexican restaurant that deals solely in carnitas. It was superb meal and the owner told us he'd been there for 41 years. Not the sign of a bad gaff...

After a wander round a Mexican supermarket so Hursty could get some supplies, we headed back to hotel via a proper stop off at Barnes and Nobel. From there we met an Irish United fan, Don, who's lived in Chicago for over 20 years, in Hub 51. After a few beers and chewing the fat for a while, we headed to Sunda for sushi. The food was superb and a special mention to our server, Bree, who was brilliant, friendly and had a good knowledge of Manchester music. We left her a few extra recommendations before we headed back to the hotel for a quick nightcap.

There was a slightly more delayed start than planned on Friday, but we headed to Hash House a Go Go for a delayed breakfast before check out and a final wander. We had a mooch down the Magnificent Mile and ended up in the John Hancock Center, getting the lift up to the 96th floor and the Signature Lounge Bar. We stopped for a couple of drinks and, whilst it was $9 a drink, one trip up to the observation deck was $18, so after a couple of drinks and a free nosey at the view we were actually even, although considering we got ale in there, we were really in profit. The original plan was to have one drink, take in the view, then carry on wandering. However, when one massive storm came across the city, we decided to have one more to ride it out. Once we were able to make a break for it, we headed back to pick up the bags and then onto Union Station for the train to Detroit.

We hit another storm on the way to the station, but we got through relatively unscathed and settled in for the 5 hour train journey. We eventually got off at Dearborn as it was closer to the hotel, after a pretty decent train ride. The train passed through Indiana before hitting Michigan, adding another state to the trip. Memorable highlights include stopping at Kalamazoo and passing Martin Luther King Jr memorial park. There also decent meal deal and ale options on the train that put the offerings in the UK to shame.

After arriving at Dearborn we got an Uber to the hotel. A top fella, it turns out he was a Beatles fan and was asking us loads of questions about Manchester, Liverpool and the band, eventually we arrived at the hotel in Romulus and settled in for the evening

We got up the following morning and after watching the planes come into the airport, which was literally across the road, we got another friendly Uber driver (a surfing volleyball player) who dropped us at Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers baseball team. We had a nosey around the outside of the ground, with a good view inside, and had a bit of a nosey at the outside of Ford Field next door, home to the Detroit Lions NFL side. After that, we had a nosey down through the small, urban Grand Circus Park and then had a good meander around the Downtown.

From there we walked to the Motor City Casino, an absolute behemoth of a place on the outskirts of downtown which was where the FC team were being put up. Whilst there was no one about, we had a walk around and grabbed some food at the Assembly Line all you can eat buffet restaurant inside. After far too much food (well, for me anyway) we got an Uber into Hamtramck, towards the Fowling Warehouse. After the odd detour due to the policing having roads blocked off, we got out and joined the Detroit supporters, with a few FC add ons, taking part in a march to the ground. It was a bit mental and nothing like we're used to!

We made it into the ground for the match and plotted up with Ste and Jane, trying to keep out of the 35 degree heat as much as possible. The game, or at least my recollection if it, was pretty inconsequential. 6,245 people saw a 3-3 draw, where FC came from behind twice to lead 3-2, before late substitute Nick Culkin forgot how to catch a ball and the hosts gained a 94th minute equaliser. But it didn't really matter and, after a quick stop off at Ste and Jane's hotel (them to get changed, me and Hursty to grab a drink), we headed to the Hopcat for the post match party. Everyone was mingling freely and it was good to catch up with people and take the whole atmosphere in. We had a good chat with Dale Johnson in there as well, before being told people were moving to the Old Shillelagh (yes, an Irish bar...) so obviously we joined them.

The rest of the evening is a bit of a blur. It started going downhill when the band who were on played Country Roads, there was a bit of a sing-a-long for 500 Miles ("Kevin Elvin, Kevin Elvin, Kevin Elvin, Kevin Elvin...") but it was Dirty Old Town that stopped the show. A good few minutes of "This Is Our Club" at the end turned into fans and then players singing away to themselves whilst the band decided to take a break. Eventually the players left to go back to the hotel and a few of us hung around until it just became too much. We shared yet another Uber back with Neil and Des and the promise of an early evening in readiness for the drive in the morning had long gone out of the window.

The next day, or later the same day if you're a pedant we drove to Cleveland. There was a brief detour via Toledo so Hursty could have a brief nosey at Fifth Third Field, a Triple-A baseball ground that's home to the wonderfully named Toledo Mud Hens. From there it was into Cleveland and we eventually got sorted and checked into the Hyatt Regency, which is probably the swankiest gaff I've stayed in. They don't normally allow the likes of us through the door...

After a brief meander towards the FirstEnergy Stadium, home of NFL side Cleveland Browns, and realising we couldn't get there quickly due to construction work, we went straight over to Progressive Field where the Cleveland Indians were playing the Baltimore Orioles in the MLB. We passed the Quicken Loans Arena, where Cleveland Cavaliers fans were queuing for miles for a special NBA Finals hat. As a follower of Toronto sports teams in North American leagues, I wasn't impressed... After getting through the airport-esque security we saw the Indians fall short and headed for a nosey at Champs Sports shop in Tower City Center.

We got back to the hotel and found a wedding going on in the arcade that the hotel is based in. We skirted round and went back out for a walk around the place, including a further mooch around the outside of Progressive Field. We then tried a couple of local bars which were either shut or dead, before attempting to go back to Harry Buffalo for food and ale, although we arrived to be told the kitchen was closed. So we ended up in a Mexican gaff, Zocalo, where any plans to have a further walk back to HB or anywhere else were cut short by another bloody storm. After hanging on as much as we could, we legged it back to the hotel where the wedding was still going strong.

The following morning we set off on the long drive to NY. I should mention the fact that, due to numbnuts here not having a clue what to do behind the wheel of a car, Hursty did all the driving. On the way down we did a bit of number plate spotting, with us managing to spot 36 different US states and 3 Canadian provinces. There was also a load of roadkill knocking about, deer and other large animals making a mockery of the squirrels and pigeons you get in the UK. Not to mention the rather large mosquito that made a mess of the windscreen!

We diverted into State College for a brief stop to look at Beaver Stadium, which is the college football stadium for Penn University. At a capacity of around 106,572 it is the second biggest in the US behind Michigan State, the second largest in the western hemisphere and the third largest in the world... We also had a nosey around Medlar Field baseball stadium next door as well.

We set off again, the drive enhanced by finding Road Trip Radio throwing out some belting tunes, before a food stop off at Curt's Smokin' Ribs in Lamar PA. After raiding a nearby Maccies for their WiFi (and drink supplies) it was off again, just as it started belting it down once more. A real corking storm which seriously reduced visibility on the drive...  We also became aware of an accident and large hold-up, so we took a diversion through Pocono. Seemed a decent enough place, with a horse racing track and a decent looking school sports ground. There were a few Donald Trump signs around though, the largest of which (and it was bloody big) getting flipped off on the way past.

Eventually we hit New Jersey and dropped the car at Newark airport before getting the Airtrain to the main Airport railway station and then NJ transit over into NY Penn Station. The subway from there took us, eventually, to our hotel where we got settled and then headed over to meet Alok. It was a belting night, taking in Alphabet City Beer Co.,7B Horseshoe Bar, Doc Holliday's and finally Bull McCabe's back near our hotel. Alok headed off, seeing as he had to work in the morning, we hung around and then got a bit of falafel from Mamoun's across the road. After that it was time to hit the hay.

The following morning, as a first-timer in NY, I went for a wander on my own. I had a walk down Broadway, but I was heading in the direction of somewhere I've been waiting to visit for nigh on 30 years... The fire station for Hook & Ladder 8, slightly more famous for being used for the external shots of the Ghostbusters HQ. Of course, this being me, I wandered onto the street it's located on to find it surrounded by scaffolding as part of a major revamp! Oh well...

From there I took in the World Trade Center and the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero. Not a lot I can say about that, it was a surreal and moving experience to walk around. I then headed to Battery Park, had a long distance nosey at Lady Liberty, spotted someone in a Leicester shirt and then the Staten Island ferry terminal. After a brief bite to eat, I wandered along the various piers towards Brooklyn Bridge before hopping on the subway up to the Flatiron building. After a quick break on Madison Square Park I walked up 5th Avenue past the Empire State Building, down to Madison Square Garden and up to Times Square, which was pretty disorientating on the first visit. The plethora of roadworks around the place didn't help! From there it was up to the much more sedate surroundings of Central Park.

As much as CP is a NY institution in its own right, I had my own reasons for being here. More Ghosbusters reasons. I found Tavern On The Green, where Louis Tully had tried to escape from a Terror Dog, before marvelling at Dana Barrett's apartment building across the road, with the church that Stay Puft stepped on next door. I was grinning from ear to ear, even trying to pinpoint the spot on the park boundary where Louis fell over the wall...

From there I walked to Strawberry Fields, back on the park, where the area for quiet contemplation (park signs, not my own thoughts) was taken over by buskers singing Beatles/John Lennon songs. After a brief rest around there, I walked back across the park and got the subway back to the hotel via a slice of pizza a couple of doors down.

In the evening we went over to Citi Field to watch more baseball, the NY Mets against, ironically, the Chicago White Sox. We didn't stay to the end as we were heading towards the Fulton Center to meet Alok again. After visiting his gaff and trying some mega expensive whisky (I'm no aficionado, I've no idea what it was) we went on another little bar run. Again, the evening is a tad hazy, but a friendly welcome and shots to go with the ale in the Fish Market, more ale in Jim Brady's where Alok once again shit out on us due to the excuse of work in the morning before we headed to Jimmy's No. 43 near the hotel. More food was obtained from a nearby Taco gaff before retiring for the evening.

The following day was our last, so we left the bags at the hotel and went for a mooch. We got the Staten Island ferry, which has to be the biggest bargain in NYC. It's free, you're on it for about 15 minutes either way and you go right past Lady Liberty. After a quick, from a distance look at another minor league ground, the Ballpark at St. George, we got the next ferry straight back over. We had another wander to Times Square and got more books at yet another Barnes and Nobel. After returning to the hotel for the bags we headed back to the airport, checked in and indulged in a Chinese after security. After that there wasn't a lot to report, aside from the flight home being pretty awful due to a terrible plane with shit legroom. Just couldn't get comfy. Still, we landed back at Manchester and I got a rather uneventful train back to Preston.

It was a belting trip, Chicago was great, Detroit was a pleasant surprise after everything we'd been told about it, Cleveland seemed decent and NYC was, well, NYC. A few places there on the list to go back and spend more time in. I wonder if we could wangle any more international friendlies?!

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