Thursday, 31 March 2011

Derby day differences: New York vs the Beautiful South

A couple of weeks ago I was getting ridiculously excited about the prospect of seeing a local derby in the US (CLICK HERE)after managing to nab tickets to see the New York Rangers entertain the New York Islanders in the NHL.

As a football fan, I had only really seen the odd local grudge match involving Brighton and Hove Albion - and a minor London derby between Fulham and Orient.

So it was with a sense of not really knowing what to expect that I donned by Brandon Prust #8 jersey and headed for the MSG (Madison Square Garden) along with my better half - also a recent Rangers convert.

So, what was different about derby day over the Pond? And how did it compare to the last time the Seagulls squared up to the scum from Selhurst Park?

Pre match

As you would expect, the bars round the MSG were rammed. However, unlike over here, both sets of supporters mingled in a way you just would not see before a Millwall vs West Ham match - or a Palace vs Brighton game.

Last time we went to Selhurst, the Metropolitan Police were heavy-handed in their control of the Albion fans - with many groups given escorts to the ground and both sets of supporters, in the main, kept well apart. Some reported being held in certain bars while most pubs near the ground operated a blanket ban on away supporters.

In New York, home and away fans walked happily side by side, with nobody hiding their colours or affiliations. Far from it. The Islanders' fans seemed more intent on making their presence known by showing off their jerseys and the home fans did not seem too bothered.

During the match

The main difference between this derby and those I have been to was that there was no crowd segregation. The block was in (304) didn't have any Islanders in, but plenty were sat elsewhere. With the Rangers boasting around 18,000 season ticket holders, there is no room set aside for away fans - with the numbers of visiting supporters generally kept low by the large distances involved.

Those who were there, nestled in among the home fans thanks to tickets snapped up online from Rangers fans, were generally quiet. But, to be honest, that would have had more to do with the ownership they were getting on the ice than any wish to stay incognito. When they did score - they celebrated and dished out the banter to any nearby Rangers fans. Anyone doing the same at a English derby would be thrown out - and likely receive a couple of dry slaps on the way.

There was no real chanting during the match, with the atmosphere somewhat lacking as a result of the mixed seating. With the away fans diluted so heavily by the home support, there was not really any group to crank up the singing in the way a 3,000 plus Seagull support would do so at Selhurst. Without an away section to target, the home crowd was a bit directionless and, to be honest, the game was the poorer for it. But, having been to other games, chanting and crowd displays are far less regular in hockey than football.

On the ice / pitch

The commitment from the Rangers team was every bit as determined as the Albion side when matched-up with Palace - or, as it was this season, Portsmouth.

However, where perhaps the hockey derby day has the edge is that players are allowed / encouraged to put in big hits, rough up opponents and use physical intimidation to get under the skin of their rivals. In football, similar behaviour would essentially cost a team the game. In hockey, it often makes the game.

That said, New York nutter Sean Avery was binned three times - resulting in being dropped for the following game, and the Islanders' lack of discipline cost them as the Rangers found their power play feet.

Nevertheless, the fact that the physical intensity and aggression is part and parcel of the game meant the Rangers' team were able to fire up the support in a more obvious way. Whereas in football, a defender putting in a big tackle might gee everyone up, it cannot really compare to someone dropping the gloves and taking on the other team's heavyweight in a scrap.

Post match

It certainly meant a lot to the Rangers' fans to get one over their rivals - particularly as it effectively ended the Islanders interest in the play-offs. However, I didn't get the sense it meant quite as much as when Brighton beat Palace (and all the odds) at Selhurst a few seasons back. Equally, the subsequent Palace win at Withdean was greeted with a far more obvious outpouring of emotion.

This could be because of the sheer number of games played in the NHL. If we played Palace more often, the pleasure of the win may dampen ever so slightly. You would like to think that wouldn't be the case, but if we beat Palace two or three times a year it probably would. Either way, it would be fun to find out.

No fans were held back - unlike our visit to Selhurst in 2002 when near 5,000 Seagulls fans were kept locked in for the best part of an hour while the police cleared the streets of Palace supporters. Both sets of fans simply filed out together.

Crowd violence

Any Brighton match with Palace normally sees police leave cancelled and the riot shields shipped in.

Prior to our 2005 meeting at Selhurst Park, there were reports of three pubs being smashed up amid clashes between rival supporters, and CCTC footage exists online of Palace supports attacking Brighton fans in a London bar before the game.

During the match missiles were thrown between the two sets of fans and small skirmishes broke out in the streets around the ground afterwards.

That said, the potential for widespread violence was well-managed by police and the sort of large scale hooliganism seen during the fixture in other years was generally avoided - at the ground at least.

I was told by a home fan that at the New York derby widespread trouble was almost unheard of and that the only clashes there would be would be between cocky Islanders fans and any Rangers who took exception to it. That or drunks.

Sure enough, the game itself went by with only (from what I could see) one person ejected after getting too rowdy in his seat. Unlike the stewards we get in football, those in the MSG were smartly dressed in blazers and, more often than not, middle-aged. A bit like you get at cricket. They were virtually invisible and it was not until the home fan over-stepped the banter mark that bigger, more bouncer-types came into the arena from the concourse and ejected him. This seemed to work as there was far less tension between the stewards and the supporters - a world away from the average supporter's experience of English football.

Outside the match was marred by one small fight. There seemed to be some minor pushing and shoving and an Islander snuck up on a Rangers fan and landed a punch - knocking him to the floor. However, he was allowed to get to his feet, nobody else piled in and the trouble petered out as both groups went their own way.

The police strolled round a couple of minutes later. Everyone had moved on and there were no arrests. The young Islander should not have thrown the punch but, and this may sound terrible to anyone reading in the US without an experience of similar incidents at football, it was refreshing that nobody jumped in, the trouble did not escalate, and no innocent bystanders were caught up in it.

That was the only minor flash point during what was, essentially, a city derby with tensions running high. There was definitely no organised groups looking to cause trouble in the same way which sometimes blights British football.

Overall

As an occasion, the New York derby certainly did not disappoint, and the intensity and passion on the ice trumped that of the players in football derbies I have seen. This may be down to the fact the laws of the game allows more visual displays of aggression than those of football do. Anyone who saw the Seagulls win at Selhurst can't possibly doubt the derby meant as much to them as anyone in other sports.

Off the pitch, the Brighton vs Palace match-ups scoop a win every time. The lack of away fans in any real numbers really impacts on the tribalism on show at the hockey - a fact proved by the visit of Montreal later the same week, when the atmosphere cranked up a couple of notches, not least because the Canadians brought with them around 2,000 fans.

The tribalism so prevalent in football is what really makes the derby day. Without the passion of the supporters it would, after all, be just another game.

That is not to say the Rangers fans were not passionate. A more passionate bunch you will rarely meet. It is just that US sport seems to show it in different ways and, as someone raised on football rivalries, that vocal tribalism is something no derby should be without. The Rangers fans tried, but with no sizable away support to bounce off, it was near impossible to generate an atmosphere to rival 4,000 Seagulls going vocally head to head with 16,000 Palace fans.

The lack of violence was a huge plus-point in favour of the NY match though. Despite the rivalry, it was a real family occasion and one everyone could enjoy - apart from the Islanders.

All in all, two cracking derby days. For atmosphere, I would go for the Brighton vs Crystal Palace game. But for players running through walls for their team (and fans) in a bid to get one over the enemy, hockey takes it every time.

- Sorry for the delay. Anyone puzzled as to why it took so long to write up (the Rangers have had quite a few matches since this)needs to look no further than my idiocy. I wrote it as soon as I was back, but forgot to publish it. Doh.

1 comment:

  1. I hope you will one day be able to experience a playoff game at MSG. The atmosphere, crowd, and the game in itself is 100x more intense and exciting than the regular season.

    It doesn't even compare. Please see a playoff game!

    ReplyDelete