GRAEME COUSINS speaks to Stephen Rea, the Belfast man who has helped boost the Green and White Army with five new female members from the USA
To describe Northern Ireland man Stephen Rea as a well-travelled individual would be an understatement.
The writer, football coach and former travel agent has been living in New Orleans for the past 14 years, though where you will find him from one weekend to the next is anybody’s guess.
His latest adventure has seen him recruit five American girls to boost the numbers of the Green and White Army for recent Nations League games in Austria and Bosnia.
As a lifelong Northern Ireland fan, much of Stephen’s world travel revolves around his country’s matches.
The 48-year-old, speaking to the News Letter from Bosnia yesterday, explained how his latest European odyssey came about: “My girlfriend loves to travel which is unusual for an American.
“How it started was I happened to mention that Northern Ireland were playing in Vienna on a Friday night and Sarajevo on a Monday night. My girlfriend said we should go. I thought she was joking.
“We booked a trip around the Northern Ireland matches. We also managed a Chelsea game away to Southampton. I write a weekly column for the Chelsea website so I always like to get to a Chelsea game whenever I can.”
He added: “I’ve been to 52 European countries. The only three I haven’t been to are Moldova, Kosovo and Montenegro. Bosnia borders Montenegro so we’re going to be going there.
“My girlfriend also wants to go to Dubrovnik [in Croatia] so we’ll be going there too.
“I think we’re actually doing eight countries in two weeks – England, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia and then we’re stopping off in Dublin on the way home to see my mum.”
Stephen said once word got out of the planned trip some of their mutual friends asked if they could join them.
Four of the five girls – including Stephen’s girlfriend Elicia Ford – are attorneys who work together at a firm in New Orleans.
Another is a friend who took one of Stephen’s writing courses.
All the women, who were kitted out in Northern Ireland regalia for the occasion, are in their early 30s.
One of the New Orleans girls who attended Monday night’s game in Sarajevo, Paige Patriarca, said: “We are now part of the Green and White Army for life and will certainly make plans to attend future games.
“How will we get there? We don’t know and we don’t care, but we’re definitely going.”
Asked if the atmosphere generated by Northern Ireland fans was comparable to US crowds, Paige said: “They make noise at [New Orleans] Saints’ games, but don’t chant. We want to introduce singing to the Saints.”
Stephen, a former Campbell College student, moved to the USA in 2004 having married an American he met while in London.
While things did not work out with that relationship, his love affair with the United States is still going strong.
He said: “I try to get back to Northern Ireland when I can, but I don’t see myself leaving America any time soon. I’ve even managed to set up my own football team out here.”
The team was set up in New Orleans from an Irish bar called Finn McCool’s. During Hurricane Katrina [in 2005], when he was displaced to Houston, Texas, he wrote his first book – Finn McCool’s Football Club – which follows not only his own struggles through that difficult period, but the rest of the team’s as well.
He currently teaches a fiction-writing course at the Walker Percy Center at Loyola University.
Explaining how he has been able to see so much of the world, he said: “I’m self-employed which helps with managing holidays.
“I run my own writing classes, what we would call night school.
“I’m a freelance writer. I write a weekly column for the Chelsea website and I also write for the local paper, for example I covered the World Cup during the summer.
“I’ve also written a couple of books. My second book [World Cup Fever] just came out this summer.
“The other thing I do is coach football at a school.
“Between those three jobs I don’t earn very much money but at least I have plenty of flexiblity and freedom to travel the world.”
He added: “I’m lucky in that I have a friend from Northern Ireland who is an airline pilot and he often helps me out with standby passes.
“I owned a travel agency for 12 years so I kind of know how the business works and how to pick up cheap flights. For instance in May, I was able to go to Panama and Costa Rica with Northern Ireland.
“I had been to all the countries in Central America apart from Nicaragua and El Salvador so I took that opportunity while I was down in Panama to hop over to Nicaragua and El Salvador just so I could say I’d been to every Central American country.”
Stephen said: “I love to travel. I always have. I actually stopped counting but I think I’ve been to something like 115 countries.
“I’ve been to all seven continents, all 50 US states.”
Following Northern Ireland has given him a great excuse to see the world: “The first game I ever saw was a ‘77 qualifier against Holland. That had George Best and Johan Cruyff on the same field.
“My first away trip was when I went to the World Cup in Spain in 1982 with my parents.
“When I owned my travel agency in the 90s I remember going to Bulgaria and we lost 4-3. I also went to the Ukraine with the Under 18s or the Under 21s. If I had an excuse to go I would travel all the time.”
He said: “One of the most bizarre games was in 2010 when I watched Northern Ireland play on a high school field against Turkey in Connecticut on a Wednesday afternoon in this tiny little town called New Britain. There were about 200 people at the game.”
Stephen reckons that until the recent enrolment of five new members of the Green and White Army, he was the only Northern Ireland fan in New Orleans.
He commented: “There was a bloke from Northern Ireland who used to live in New Orleans who was a fan, but he moved back to Killyleagh. I think his mum delivered David Healy. So I’d say I’m more or less on my own now.
“There are other people from Northern Ireland who live in New Orleans, but I’m not aware if they’re fans.
“Whenever Northern Ireland are playing and I go to my local pub it’s usually me on my own sitting there watching the game.
“So now I’ve got five new fans. That puts New Orleans on a par with Donaghadee I think.”
He added: “I didn’t know until I moved there but New Orleans has a rich Irish history. There’s an area called the Irish Channel that was dug by Irish people.”
He said they were used because they were easier and cheaper to replace if they died during the work – which many did.
He said: “The big sport in New Orleans is American Football. My girlfriend has been going to the Saints since she was a little kid. Her family have season tickets. They travel three hours each way from Mississippi to the games.
“For the first 10 years I lived in America I never bothered with it. The last few years I’ve got hooked.
“Soccer is getting more and more popular in the 14 years I’ve lived there. The change has been remarkable.”
For the past 30 years Stephen has counted rock icon Ozzy Osborne as a good friend.
As well as appearing on screen with Ozzy and his son Jack, Stephen contributed a chapter to Ozzy’s official biography Diary of a Madman.
He explained how the friendship came about: “In 1985 Ozzy did a big rock festival in Rio De Janiero called Rock In Rio. I happened to mention to my dad about it one night. My dad loved music and had always wanted to go to Brazil so he encouraged me to find out more.
“My mum wrote to the Ozzy fan club. It was years before the internet. She’d asked for information about how to get tickets.
“The Osbornes’ secretary – who is still one of my best friends all these years later – picked up the letter and called my mum and said, ‘listen, don’t worry about tickets – if you’re going to go all the way from Belfast to Rio, then we’ll look after you’.
“In Rio, we had breakfast with Ozzy and Sharon, we had dinner with them. They gave us backstage passes. I stood at the side of the stage watching the show.”
He added: “We’ve stayed friends since the mid ‘80s. I used to save up my money to go off on America tours for a week or two.
“They would take me on the tour bus, pay for my hotels and finally after a few years they said, ‘we might as well give him a job because he’s around all the time anyway’. I then ended up working for him on tour. That was fantastic, to be paid to travel the world with your hero.”
Of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle he claimed: “We would play chess and have a cup of tea and be in bed for 11 every night.”
Stephen appears in the second series of the TV show Ozzy and Jack’s World Detour when they call at his house in New Orleans.
With friends like Ozzy Osborne and a jet-setting lifestyle, Stephen was asked how he stays grounded: “My daughter keeps me right. I turned up one day to pick her up from school with Metallica bass player Robert Trujillo in the car. When she got in the car I said, ‘this is my friend Robert, he’s in a band’ and she just said, ‘meh’.
“I’ve asked her if she wants to go and meet Ozzy and it’s the same reaction. That’s the sort of thing that keeps me grounded.”