The Death and Life of a Football Club
Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, but for author Stephen Rea the story isn't over yet
Five years ago Belfast-born Stephen Rea spent a year in New Orleans writing his novel and playing in an Irish pub’s football team in his spare time. Then Katrina hit, devastating the state and nearly wiping the city off the map, and suddenly, for Rea the author, 'a comedy set in New Orleans wasn’t going to be an easy sell'.
As a teenager Rea spent four years working for the The Sun, hired at 18 as their first ever trainee, but he switched career paths at 21. Suffering from wanderlust he came back to Belfast and bought his own travel agency. ‘I travelled the world for 12 years,’ Rea recalls. ‘I went to more than 100 countries, all 7 continents, all 50 states and travelled all over the place.’
New Orleans was one of the cities he had visited during his travels and it had left him with a lingering fondness for the city. So when he contemplated a move to the US with his American wife they decided to move there, although neither of them had ties to the area.
There was one thing he did miss though: football. It was his love of the game that brought him to Finn McCool’s pub every Sunday night. The pub was run by three Northern Irish ex-pats (two from Belfast, one from Lurgan).
‘After I’d been going for about six months they started a pub football team with a bunch of old fogies and idiots like myself in their 40s and
50s,' says Rea. 'There were English, Scottish, Dutch, South African, French and all kinds of nationalities. I remember thinking there might be a book in that.’
The book Rea envisioned was one about football bringing people together and the specialized difficulties in putting together team in horrendously hot Louisiana. He never got a chance to write it, and after Hurricane Katrina he had a different story to tell: Finn McCool's Football Club: The Birth, Death, and Resurrection of a Pub Soccer Team in the City of the Dead.
Rea and his family evacuated New Orleans the day before the levees broke. He remembers driving through the empty, eerie streets and the feeling that there was something bearing down on them. It was the only time in his life, he says, that he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. ‘You just knew it wasn’t going to be something good.’
In Houston, where his wife’s company had relocated them, Rea got news about what had happened to his pub team-mates during the hurricane. ‘A guy from the pub team stayed until the levees broke and he had to swim out past dead bodies, loot an ATM machine and bribe a guy with a stolen school bus to drive him out of New Orleans.
‘Another friend, Steve, was literally swept out of his bed and down the street in his boxers. He spent three days clinging to a chimney and by the time he was helicoptered out he was so badly burnt he couldn’t even drink the water they gave him.’
The more stories that filtered out of the New Orleans disaster zone the more convinced Rea became that the book needed to be written. And Rea, living in a one room apartment in Houston with his wife, was in the perfect position to write it. ‘I had no job, no friends and no car,’ Rea explains. ‘And Houston is like California, you need a car because it is miles to anywhere. So I just sat down and started to write.’
Moving back to New Orleans three months later gave Rea even more material. The vibrant, vital city he had left was now empty and disconnected. There were no traffic lights, no hospitals, no binmen and no children because there were no schools.
‘Even now you can still see the painted slogans on houses from rescuers going door-to-door looking for people. You can see the brown tidemark where the water was,’ he pauses and adds with a distinct flicker of pride. ‘A lot of the city still needs fixed, but we’ve come back to 80 or 85% of our population.’
Rea doesn’t regret moving back to New Orleans, even though it wasn’t easy in the early days. ‘People can’t just abandon places,’ he says firmly. ‘You have to stay and fight your corner, not just wander away every time life throws something at you.’
Not that Rea condemns everyone who failed to return to New Orleans once the city was livable again. Despite all the glitz and glamour of Mardi Gras and the French Quarter, there were a lot of people living below the poverty line before the hurricane. For many of them, evacuation to Houston or Texas meant they got a good job and a decent place to live.
‘Race is a big thing,’ Rea says bluntly. ‘It’s the blacks who get screwed. So people like me, white middle-class people, it was important we came back and did something for the city.’ You sense that Rea feels he owes the city that, payment for telling its stories in his book.
Watch a short extract from Michael Murphy Productions' forthcoming documentary about the Finn McCool Football Club below.