Gooner Gras 2017
The warm river air welcomed me as I exited the New Orleans airport terminal – a stark (and pleasant) contrast to the cold, biting wind the city prepared for us last year. But the weather, like last year – and all years – did not really matter much to a rather specific group of visitors. Gooner Gras 2017 was kicking off, and Arsenal supporters from 30+ U.S. cities, Canada, the UK, and even Hungary would have shown up even if the weather called for flaming hail and occasional volcanic eruptions.
The (for the moment, at least) entirely unofficial kickoff to the annual New Orleans Mardi Gras season, Gooner Gras gives Arsenal supporters in the United States the chance to come together in large numbers to celebrate the passion, the love, and the obsession that is the Arsenal Football Club. Now in its fourth year, what started out as just a few handfuls of Gunner supporters has exploded in popularity and growth with this year closing in on 200 participants. It’s the one chance a year where supporters clubs across the country that may only see 10 or fewer “regulars” each week in their pubs can get together with a triple-digit number of people who understand their dedication to an iconic English Premier League team.
Four years in and the tireless Krewe of Arsenal has put together a standard, well-organized series of events for Gooners to enjoy during their time in New Orleans. And the plan has to be organized, because hundreds of Gooners are the variable in any situation. The “Herding cats” cliché is only valid in this situation if the cats have been drinking, won’t stop singing, and hug you every time you try and direct them to the proper location. Some of them can’t tell time better than cats, either.
Catching Up in the Quarter
Regardless, a short time later I found myself at a hotel in the French Quarter with most of a lovely Friday afternoon still ahead. Some of my San Antonio brethren from Alamo City Arsenal had arrived before me and their social media updates only made time move more slowly during my travels. But I knew where they were and with my Arsenal jacket and scarf traded for a simple vintage AFC t-shirt, I wandered into the humid street and found a dozen Gooners at a bar on Bourbon Street which ACA had commandeered the year before. But now Denver, Raleigh, Austin, the UK and others were also represented in the crowd and the happy chant of, “Gooner!” roared out as I approached. We all do it every time someone with the crest approaches. The feeling of friendship and warmth it generates when given and received simply does not get old.
What does get old, it seems, is to have the Arsenal crowd expand to over 25 noisy souls all trying to drink in your drinking establishment. Gooner Gras activities begin on Thursday, but the majority of Gooners pour into the streets of the Quarter on Friday. And the bartender’s scowl only grew as more money poured into the tills. Most of us found this confusing. So a chant started and we moved down the street. We didn’t mind leaving, as it was almost time to attend the first “big” event of the weekend – the Gooner Gras Happy Hour welcome party at the upstairs bar of a local restaurant. I never caught an accurate figure, but upwards of 60 or more Gooners filled the bar and – I’m pretty sure – terrified the manager. But we Gooners can be sensible (yes, really!) at times, and most of us recognized this was not the place for chants and other verbal offenses. However, the manager remained unconvinced and at one point closed a curtain between us and other customers. No one cared, as this was the first chance most of were having to say hello to friends from past Gooner Gras weekends and welcome all the newcomers to the festivities. And of course, we knew the time for raucous, outrageous singing and chanting would soon arrive … in the form of a school bus, of course.
From Bus to Brewery
When the traditional yellow and black school bus pulled up, Gooners systematically closed their tabs and wandered down the stairs like a bunch of grinning, half-bombed lemmings. No one asked any questions – we all just got on the bus, sat down, and waited. The loud and impressively offensive chants started only after the driver had pulled at least two or three feet away from the restaurant. We covered all the mandatory topics, scum teams, plastic teams, traitors of the AFC, and so much more. And we didn’t stop until the bus did – in front of the NOLA Brewing Tap Room.
We tipped our driver and walked into the Tap Room. We moved straight past the bar and into the back room which would be Gooner Gras central for the best meet and greet of the weekend, a great charity raffle, and – of course – the coronation of the new king and queen of Gooner Gras.
Long Live the Queen (and King)
In what must have been the most peaceful transition of power in recent history, the 2016 King and Queen of Gooner Gras relinquished their crowns with a few tears shed, but no bloodshed. Beer and laughter flowed freely as the kingdom’s loyal subjects awaited the announcement of their new leaders. The names were announced, and the new king and queen stepped forward to greet the masses. The king gave the crowd a stately wave and commanded us to drink to the Arsenal. We did as instructed and agreed that the king’s wisdom could not be argued.
The queen stepped forward and said some kind words to her subjects. Then she asked what we thought of the small peasant village outside our grand kingdom called Tottenham. We told her our thoughts with great eagerness. Then she thanked us. We said that was all right.
With the formalities concluded, we reached for our wallets and focused our attention on the charity raffle, where we gave up lots of money for the chance to feed our insatiable desire to add yet one more Arsenal item to our collections. Some of us won big, but as usual, the charity won biggest. And Gooners like it that way.
With arms full of prizes and bellies full of beer, the boisterous throng made their way to the exits. Some left in search of new watering holes, others had their collective minds on the 6:30 a.m. local start time for the morning’s match against Hull, and headed for their hotels for a few hours of rest. The night darkened and a cool breeze sent us onward. Regardless of our evening destinations, the morning would come soon.
Match Day … Morning, Really
Finn McCool’s plays host to the Krewe of Arsenal’s weekly matches, and kindly agreed to bring in what can only be described – lovingly – as a Gooner Sunrise. A sea of red and white-clad Gooners in various states of disrepair stumbled into McCool’s and brightened its muted atmosphere with a quiet buzz of excitement and anticipation. Pre-match coverage lit up the television screens around the pub. Someone brought doughnuts.
Beer, bloody marys, and other assorted drinks quickly balanced out the bloodstreams and the Gooners cheered the kickoff with an exuberance rarely heard from any of us at that hour of the morning. Chants and songs remained consistent with high participation and energy – an energy that finally paid off with an Alexis Sanchez goal which generated roars as it went in, and laughter upon replay review.
Nevertheless, the 1 – nill to the Arsenal chant began in earnest and hugs, fist bumps, and high fives became the order of the day after Sanchez finished Hull off with a penalty kick. At the whistle, Gooners poured out onto the Finn McCool’s patio, took an amazing picture together, and then gave both the city’s Tottenham fans a very proper taunting.
With the match secured and the scum put in their place, thoughts turned to breakfast, more booze, and whether to watch the Liverpool match. And naps. Many people thought of naps. The day had started early and would go on well into the night. I went to the hotel, slept through the Liverpool match, and had a dream about Diego Costa being eaten by a giant koala bear.
Saturday Night Fever
Waking up to see the score line of 2 – 0 Liverpool got me going quickly. I changed and headed for a bar where numerous Gooners were way ahead of me in the drinking and laughing at Tottenham game. There would be time to catch up later. At that moment, we needed to make our way to Washington Artillery Park at the outer edge of the Quarter for a picture with the very large cannon that sits on a raised platform in the the square and looks out onto the sprawling Mississippi river. As in previous years, the impressive mob of Arsenal supporters in matching and / or similar attire making their way past the Farmer’s Market and the St. Louis Cathedral in song garnered some attention from tourists, who couldn’t help but snap a picture or two – even if they weren’t sure what they were looking at.
And – as in years past – this incredible group managed to behave and be still long enough to capture the energy and excitement of the weekend in a single snapshot. When everyone had climbed down from the cannon and the square itself, we made our way to Dat Dog NOLA, the restaurant and bar that would once again host us for the first parade of the Mardi Gras season.
The year over year growth of Gooner Gras made the balcony parade viewing a crowded, hot affair. But Gooners made the best of it. Someone found out actor Seth Rogen was at the end of the balcony with a large group of people. When the parade ended, he walked by wearing a mask. I held out our Krewe of Arsenal and Alamo City Arsenal Mardi Gras beads and said, “These are from Arsenal!” He paused long enough for me to put them over his head. Then he looked at them closely, then looked at me and said, “Thank you, Arsenal guy! Can we be best friends?”
Okay, he didn’t say that. I put the beads on him and he left without a word. I may have been drinking and as Saturday night turned into Sunday morning, I may have shouted that I put Arsenal beads on Seth Rogen to every Gooner who attended. And that was probably a tad over the top. Who cares, anyway? He’ll never start for Arsenal. I’m over it.
The Wrap Party
Sunday opened quietly with a small crowd of us watching Burnley draw with Chelsea at a bar roughly 8 feet from the hotel – the limit of what I was willing to call walking distance at that point. When the match ended we tallied up the weekend: Arsenal win, scum loss, Chelsea draw. A better set of results we could not have legitimately asked for. Gooner Gras would end on a high note, for sure. But it would end with fewer supporters, as planes and cars were already taking happy, weary Gooners home. Many missed the races at the New Orleans Fairgrounds, and others (thankfully) missed a lot of us trying to ride a mechanical bull. Yep, with extremely limited exception, it was not any of our finest moments. But even the worst rider (me) got off the ground to the cheers of other Gooners around me. Because when you’re Arsenal someone has your back no matter what dumb thing you’re falling off of.
Sunday afternoon moved away much like Saturday and when evening took over, a multitude of cheerful and noisy Gooners made their way to bars with bands and bars with balconies and as we roamed the crowded streets we stood under the neon lights and let the whole of the French Quarter know who was – by far – the greatest team the world has ever seen.
Hours of laughter and singing ran together until, as I sat on the back patio of a bar with 30 or so Gooners, my brain forced me to do a little math and make a rather sobering calculation: I was leaving in less than 8 hours. I had to pack, had to sleep (a little), which meant I had to go back to the hotel.
My Gooner Gras was ending. No, it was over.
I stood up and shouted to my Gooner family. I smiled and I said, “I have to go.” I hugged David Ziegler (one of the ACA founders and the person who introduced me to Arsenal), and tried to say a few quick goodbyes. But then I looked at everyone and made a heart with my hands, like Giroud does. Because I couldn’t have said another word out loud.
No one enjoys saying goodbye at the end of something special. But its Gooner Gras’ temporary nature that – like many things – makes it so special.
Well, it’s part of what makes it so special, anyway.
What – for me – makes it such a monumentally incredible event is its ability to reinforce a very simple yet important ideal – just how powerful a common ground the love for Arsenal is. The love for this team creates an unbreakable bond among people from every walk of life, every nationality, and every religious background. There are always exceptions, of course, but this club draws to its center an optimistic, triumphant core of people who are bound to this club through thick and thin. We all love trophies, and we all love winning. But when you’re surrounded by fellow Gooners and you’re singing, and shouting, and cheering with so many pleasant, affable, and wonderful people, you start to understand how special this is. You start to realize that when you’re an Arsenal supporter, you’re always winning. We celebrate Arsenal’s highs and lament their lows with an absurdly diverse group of people hurled together by a common passion that binds us for life. I support the greatest club in the world, and I do so alongside the greatest supporters in the world.
Gooner Gras celebrates this. It’s infectious, it’s hilarious, and it’s growing. And you can see for yourself next year. Clock is ticking.
Oh, and did I mention I put Arsenal beads on Seth Rogen?