NY Giants 30 Houston 17

New York Giants 45

New York Giants 30 Houston Texans 17 (21st Sept 2014)

Although I can appreciate the game easily enough, I’m not an NFL fan. Not that I dislike the game. I watched it way back in the 1980s when it first appeared on Channel 4 in England, but without the right satellite package, opportunities to watch it here are limited. As such it was a case of pigeonholing the idea of going to a game in the USA as a “I’ll never do it again” experience, just to justify the cost.

I’d actually booked my trip before the fixtures were released, knowing I’d attempt to go to a game in Houston or Dallas if a they had a game over the weekend when I was in Texas (neither team did) and one in New York, when either the Jets or the Giants would surely be at home.

I’d hoped for a New York Jets game, purely because I thought it would be easier to get a ticket. What I hadn’t accounted for was games being moved to a Monday night for live tv coverage. The Jets were indeed at home on the Monday night, which would have been a problem. I was due to see another kind of Jet, the 747 taking back to England, on Monday night instead.

I say “would have”, because the NFL, in a stroke of good fortune, had decided to have both the Jets and Giants play at home that weekend, so it would be the Giants I’d be seeing for my first (and probably only) experience of live NFL in the USA.

That’s live as in “at the stadium” obviously. I’d been bombarded with live coverage of the tv sort on a daily basis since arriving, as American tv in September seems to consist of little beyond NFL coverage, and news reports, which often break into NFL coverage anyway, especially with NFL stories dominating the news, as they were at the time.

Beyond that, the only entertaining things on tv were the adverts for pills and remedies, where the litigation-happy culture forces the makers to end adverts with lengthy disclaimers about possible side-effects, to the extent that you wonder who still takes the drugs. You have a shot of a happy smiling pill taker, followed by a voice over going “warning, Tiazepol can cause cardiac arrest, respiratory failure and sudden death. Do not take Tiazepol if you have a history of illness of any kind or an IQ over 50. Continued use of Tiazepol can cause infertility, dementia and ebola. Tiazepol may cause mood changes, such as developing suicidal or homicidal tendencies. Tiazepol may also cause your face to dissolve, and make you grow a second head. Stop using Tiazepol if you experience vomiting, bleeding from the eyes, or if you spontaneously combust.

The only danger of cardiac arrest I had was from the cost of buying the ticket for the game. The NFL has an official “ticket exchange” website, where fans can resell unwanted tickets, in effect an official ticket tout. Not wanting to miss out, I logged on the first day I could, and picked the first ticket whose price didn’t make me want to scream.

The 1pm kick off for the game meant it’d take a huge chunk out of what I could do on the Sunday. I just didn’t realise how big a chunk. It didn’t help that I didn’t really plan the timing of getting there too well. My 20 minute trip from the not-quite-as-dingy-as-it-sounds Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42 Street meant then even after stopping for a bit of breakfast, I was still arriving two and a half hours early.

New York Giants 24

Now, even for a major game in England, the crowds are usually a bit thin with this long to go. Here though, our bus pulled up around a quarter of a mile from the stadium, into parking lots full of thousands of cars.

While I’d seen small “tailgates” at both football matches I’d been to, this was the real deal. Hundreds of barbeques dotted the car park, as fans made a full day of it, with food, beer and games to while away the hours. And we’re not just talking a few sausages and the odd burger as you’d have in England either. Some of these tailgate groups had enough meat cooking to make you suspect they’d stopped off at a butcher en-route and picked up half a cow to bring along.

And none of it is for sale either. It’s just people cooking for themselves and friends, and as I was to find when I went into the stadium later as saw the prices, it’s not difficult to see the appeal of bringing your own. And with games lasting over three hours, the importance of not needing to refill is pretty high too.

Five years ago those same tailgaters, had they been on the same spot, would have found themselves cooking meat on the Giant’s field itself. The original Meadowlands Stadium, perhaps more famous outside the USA as once being the home of Pele and the New York Cosmos in the old NASL days, was where that car park is now. That stadium didn’t even see its 35th birthday. Given that inadequacies had seen the Giants move out of the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium previously, they must be hoping this new place will be somewhere where they can stick around.

Met Life Stadium might be the most expensive stadium ever built, but from the outside it’s not hugely impressive. True, it’s big, but the grey louvred facade that wraps round the stadium makes it look rather like the world’s largest heating vent, or maybe air-cooled motorbike engine. The overcast sky meant only the multitude of blue shirts stopped the place looking exactly the same as if photographed in black and white.

If the tailgate felt in some ways like a celebration of all thing American, getting into the venue was a reminder of how the outside world has imposed in a city that knows it more than most.  All bags were banned, and entrance was via a pat-down and a metal detector more akin to 80s Upton Park than what you’d expect now – with the authorities trying to protect from rather more than a hooligan with a knuckleduster and a stanley knife.

On the other hand, the world of unbridled capitalism continued at full pace just a short distance away in the Giants club shop. Fans in England may be up in arms about football shirts creeping towards the £50 mark, but $99 (£62) is the price for the cheapest replicas here. And yes, those are the cheapest. Want the genuine article “game day” style jersey, with a name of your choice on the back? That’ll be a bargain $294.95, or £185, give or take a few pennies.

New York Giants 25

My search for a souvenir drew a blank, at least for something I felt was worth the money. In the end I settled for a match programme at just $5. After buying two which were really just magazines at the baseball, a fold-out pamphlet at Houston Dynamo, and not being able to find anything beyond a fixture card at New York Red Bull, this was the only genuine matchday programme I’d seen. It was just a shame that it wasn’t very good.

Don’t get me wrong. It had a lot to read. It’s just that I can see why few others were buying them. Most of it was either pretty dry, or you got the feeling it would be the same every single week. The first 30 pages (0f 98) were purely bios of the head coach, other coaches, and the top officials of the organisation. Quite how many people are there who keen to know the career history of the club treasurer? All are written with all the style and readability of a wikipedia entry, to add to the joy.

Most of the rest is devoted to year by year recaps of the 90 seasons of Giants’ history, which was interesting to me, but perhaps less interesting if it’s the 8th time you’ve seen it that season. Away team coverage was another tedious bio, this time of their head coach, and line-ups for both teams, meaning about the only unique thing worth reading in each issue was a lengthy player interview, which was good, to be fair.

Step into the stadium though, and such complaints seem trivial. Stepping out at pitch level, the place just seems huge, with three tiers towering above. OK, they are also in the same shades of grey which the stadium designer clearly had a fetish about, but there’s also a sense of intimacy about the place, or at least as intimate as an 82,000 seat venue ever could be. Wembley might be bigger, but the back of the top tiers in this stadium don’t feel like they are in a different postcode. And that’s just as well, as that’s where my ticket was located.

Way up on the 3rd tier concourse I set about finding something to eat. The same variety of caterers that I saw at Red Bull Arena seemed to be here too, just in greater numbers. I think I even saw the very same “Here it is! Bud, Bud Light” seller that at saw at the baseball a few days before, but selling hotdogs this time. I can only hope the stall selling “Fried dogs, chicken tenders, fried clams” was selling hot-dogs too, rather than stereotypically catering to New York’s Korean community.

It was such familiarity with the traders that caused me to opt for one (and only one) pint of Beck’s. So what if it was $9? My trip was coming to a close. I wouldn’t miss it. Sadly I didn’t check the price, and was taken aback by being asked for $12. I’d not paid that price for a beer since going to Singapore and not checking the menu in advance.

Despite not really being an NFL fan, I was really looking forward to this game. Even though the visitors were from Houston, where I’d been the previous weekend, I’d fully opted for nominally supporting the Giants today. I did want a home victory.

I had read up a bit though, and the Giants weren’t the favourites. Houston had won their opening two games, while the Giants had lost both of theirs. I said in a previous piece that one of the joys of seeing an unfamiliar sport in person was getting to see the incompetence of players, as well as appreciating the skill – and see familiar fan reactions transfer to a different sport as a result. The nervousness of the Giants after two defeats seemed to shine through at first.

The Giants had pushed forward and were only a few short yards from a touchdown. The anticipation grew in the home crowd, feeling taking the lead was inevitable. With a home player in the end zone waiting to receive the touchdown pass, the pass was poor and intercepted when a touchdown look all but certain. It was almost like missing an open goal. One fan in front of me stood with his hands on his head in disbelief. How would it impact a team already low on confidence?

New York Giants 39 - No.80 about to score for the Giants

In the 2nd quarter another promising drive was killed by the snapped pass back being poor and going through the quarterback’s legs, losing about 15 yards on the play. In front of me a stereotype New Yorker, straight out of central casting, yelled “What is this? The 1973 Yankees?” I’ve no idea what the reference meant, but it’s a safe bet it’s not complimentary.

With less than four minutes to go in the first half the game was still 0-0, but then it all went right for the struggling home side. A pass forward was caught, and the catch wrong-footed a defender, and the ball was carried a further 20 yards for the opening score.

Houston had, in football terms, “a bit of a mare”, from the restart. Deep near their goal, they conceded a 5 yard penalty, then had their quarterback tackled, leaving them with two goes to get the ball 19 yards. Then they threw an intercepted pass, giving the Giants the ball just two yards out. No mistakes this time, they bulldozered through the pack of bodies for a second touchdown and a 14-0 half time lead.

Houston, backed by a smattering of fans dotted around the stadium, pulled back one touchdown towards the end of the third quarter, making in 17-10, and possibly setting up a nervy final quarter for the home side. Within about five minutes it was pretty much game over though. More shooting themselves in the foot from Houston saw them have a punt blocked, with the ball quickly put in their end zone for another touchdown. Two field goals for the home side had seen the score blow out to 30-10, and some happy fans were already starting to drift away.

There was still time for Houston to force the ball over late on, to very muted celebration. With just two minutes left, it was really just about running down the clock for the inevitable home victory. Mr Central Casting New Yorker in front of me proceeded to light up a fat cigar in celebration, and sat back puffing on it contentedly. Given the virtual impossibility of a team scoring two touchdowns in two minutes, especially when they don’t have the ball, the end was quite slow in coming. Three Houston time outs, to stop the home side running down the clock, were like a condemned man on death row making last minute appeals to stop execution, but in the end the teams just walked of with the last seconds still running on the clock.

Mr Central Casting, cigar still in mouth, proceeded to shake hands with all those around him, and while I wasn’t so content that a cigar seemed appropriate (especially in a non-smoking stadium), I had enjoyed it, barring one moment where the sun came out. I’m no sunbather, but I do like the sun. It’s just that I’d got a shade too much of it the previous day, and with temps around 80F, and no shade at all in the stadium, I could feel my arms starting to cook. Sticking my left arm down the back of the empty seat next to me eased things a bit, I did worry I’d be left with a burned stripe if I had another hour and a half of this.

It had been a good day, even for a non-fan such as myself, but a bit of gloss was taken off by it taking two hours to cover the trip back to my hotel. Eco protesters had shut down much of the west side of Manhattan with a march, and it hugely impacted the ability of buses to get through the Lincoln Tunnel. At least the slow crawl round the over ramps down to the tunnel in New Jersey gave another view of the Manhattan skyline. It looked rather better from there than it did through the haze while waiting for a bus to turn up outside the stadium.

So even if my stay in the USA wasn’t quite over, the sporting part of it was. It wasn’t cheap, but I prefer to think two weeks with two tours, nine goals, twelve runs, and five touchdowns, was pretty priceless, rather than actually totting up the bill for how much it all actually cost. You can’t judge the value of everything just by the cost, although for a $12 pint of beer, I’d probably make an exception.

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