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Front Page - Friday, April 14, 2017

Jenkins column: ‘Chattahooligans’ rally for team, one of their own

Steven Landrum: a true Hooligan, is currently rehabbing in Atlanta following accident. - Submitted

Chattanooga sports fans have long supported their teams with all the energy and excitement that earns them labels like “apathetic,” “frontrunners” and, most damming of all, “non-existent.” 

But for the better part of the last decade, there has been a proud-but-small group of true-to-their-soul, hardcore fans of one very fortunate team.

That team is the Chattanooga Football Club, and their fans – at least a solid and growing core of them – have proudly labeled themselves as the “Chattahooligans.” Theirs is a full-on commitment to the cause, right down to the fact that five couples who had met through the organization have gotten engaged.

“I’m still angling for our first on-field wedding,” says Galen Riley, one of the groups’ capos, or organizers.

“We don’t have officers or dues,” adds Riley recently during “For the Love of the Game,” a pre-season organizational meetings/party. “I’d call our group more of a fellowship.”

To be a worthy Chattahooligan, you must take part in the charge onto the field, lead the rest of the fans in an a cappella version of the National Anthem and, ideally, wave a sign or a banner while doing a well-rehearsed and often graphic song or cheer.

“Most sports fans cheer to react to the game they’re watching,” Riley explains. “In soccer, you try to impose your will on the game.”

To this end, the Chattahooligans keep serviced and match ready no less than 10 drums that are in constant use during a match. Each drum has its own handler/keeper and each one has its own name.

“The largest of them is Hellga – two ‘l’s’ – and she’s a symphonic bass,” Riley points out. “To be in use constantly over the course of a season can take a toll on a drum skin.”

Indeed, one of the group’s principal annual goals is to keep fully funded the upkeep and occasional repairs for all 10 drums.

Riley and his mates know that their passion and their noise can be a nuisance for the fans who like to sit quietly and take in a match – soccer is never a “game” – but that is part of the master plan. The Chattahooligans, like their players, are all about winning and not being shy about it.

The Chattahooligans were already a fledgling organization when Riley came aboard in 2010; they pretty much were born spontaneously in the Finley Stadium parking lot before the CFC’s first-ever home match in 2009. That match drew a modest 1,600 fans, but the seeds were planted. Their ’09 home finale, against Birmingham, had more than 3,000 in attendance. And it only grew from there.

The legend goes something like this:  a mother-daughter combo, natives of the New York area and lifetime soccer fans, made a conscious effort to draw in like-minded fans. In less than a year’s time, they had drawn together those fans inside and outside of the venue and have gone so far as to design and proudly wear new “scarves” each new season.

But why the phenomena? What makes the CFC so worthy of this kind of unconditional adulation? Well, it’s called “winning.”

The CFC, which delightfully has no nickname or funny animal mascot, has been to two of the last three NPSL (National Premier Soccer League) championships, and four of them overall. No other team in the league’s history has ever reached two.

The NPSL is a fourth-tier league in the national soccer pyramid, essentially making it the equivalent of a developmental league. But there are more than a few of their players who have very much made Chattanooga a “home” team, according to Tim Kelly, one of the CFC’s eight locally based owners. Bill Elliott, the CFC head coach, has held down that job since 2011 as only the club’s second head coach ever.

Their first run at the championship came in 2010, ending with a 3-1 loss to Sacramento. After coming up short in 2011, their 2012 season ended in total heartbreak – a 1-0 loss to FC Sonic of Pennsylvania on a header goal in the 78th minute. The 2014 season began their annual run at the trophy, a team with the exhaustive title of the New York Red Bulls U-23 defeated CFC by a 3-1.

In 2015, the CFC and Finley Stadium were named the hosts of the U.S. Soccer Amateur Championship that May, and would wind up hosting the New York Cosmos B for the NPSL championship as well. A developmental team for arguably the most famous brand in American soccer, the Cosmos’ involvement helped the match-up draw over 18,000 at Finley Stadium to see the Cosmos B take a 3-2 win in extra time.

The 2016 season was given a tough act to follow, and this past season ended with a 5-3 loss to Miami in the regional finals of the NPSL.

But what has the Chattahooligans (and many of the city’s more casual soccer fans) fired up about 2017 were a pair of February matches hosted by Finley Stadium – one of which did not even directly involve CFC. But their mere existence was a major victory for advocates of the sport locally. The two matches – one involving the U.S. National team against the CFC, the other the debut exhibition of Arthur Blank’s new Atlanta franchise – drew a combined 30,000 fans to them.

“Think about it – 30,000 butts in the seats in February. Never been done before,” Riley accurately points out. “Of course, the dirty little secret in Chattanooga is that, since 2015, the CFC has drawn more fans to home games than the UTC Mocs for football.”

A 2014 playoff match against Sacramento generated a turnout of 8,878 – which was a league attendance record at the time. But that was dwarfed when the Cosmos B came to town: the packed stadium had an announced crowd of 18,277. No fourth-tier team in the U.S. has ever drawn more.

But remarkably, the CFC ownership has concerns about their relationship with Finley Stadium moving forward. With the disappointing retirement of Paul Smith already a cause for concern, the club is facing negotiations with a “committee” that seems settled in for a lengthy run without one chief operator.

And it’s well known locally that Smith was not a fan of the CFC when he took over the position, but sat down with ownership over beer and burgers and they parted the lunch as friends and partners in promoting and hosting the club.

It is hoped that the two sides meet and form a similar partnership by the time the Chattahooligans host the unveiling of the new 2017 home jersey on April 27. The season is set to begin with a match against rival Birmingham on May 20.

Andrew Bresee, one of the other team capos, is using this time wisely, hoping that his group will be able to bring an obnoxiously loud number of fans to road games this season. It’s not an impossible task, as several of his fellow boosters held a series of meetings tailored to that end.

“It’s good to take over the other guy’s stadium,” adds Bresee, who hooked up with the Chattahooligans after several years in Europe furthering his education. Returning to his hometown as a truly disenfranchised soccer fan, his vocal, energetic involvement with the group has become total.

“I never in my life have suffered so much as when we lost last year,” he laments, sincerely.

But as of February, the Chattahooligans have had a bigger, more serious concern.

One of their essential members, Stephen Landrum, was involved in a serious motorcycle accident and is in Atlanta undergoing neurotherapy. Known as the “Bowler Hat Hooligan,” Landrum, also a decorated U.S. Army veteran from his time in Afghanistan, was in the ICU for a month before moving into a private roof to begin his months of therapy.

“Stephen always brought great stuff to the tailgates, he sings loudly and is an all-around great guy. In other words, he’s one of us,” his GoFundMe page on Facebook reads. In a month’s time, they have raised $7,300 towards a $10,000 goal for his medical bills.

It can be found as the Stephen Landrum Rehabilitation Fund.