Two Irish sporting evangelists wait out the storm in the city that doesn’t sleep
John Riordan and Simon Gillespie on life in New York during the coronavirus pandemic
Cork man John Riordan works with the America Scores programme which operates in 12 cities and provides soccer coaching, poetry classes and general community service to some of the most impoverished families in those cities.
Two tales from the city. On the week that the NBA announced an indefinite postponement of the season, the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, vowed that the city schools would remain open.
“That was on a Friday,” John Riordan remembers. “Forty-eight hours later, the schools were closed. It was a tough decision because it was the last thing they wanted to do.”
Riordan is a Cork man who works as development director with the New York outlet of the America Scores programme, which operates in 12 cities and provides soccer coaching, poetry classes and general community service to some of the most impoverished families in those cities.
“So we had to get a battle plan together with videos and a mail to families and guides and to let them know what their rights are,” he says of the immediate response to the drastic change of day-to-day life in the city.
“And to just keep in touch as much as possible. The bigger goal of it is to spot any sign of trauma or hunger or bullying. A lot of the kids live in shelters. There is a huge homeless population in the public school system programme here in New York. So soccer is the vehicle – but it is more so about trying to get kids engaged.”
When the Covid crisis gripped America, Riordan and his colleagues faced what became a global dilemma: how to instantly flip to a remote-working environment. The entire concept of America Scores is based on person-to-person communication. It’s about building trust and giving children who wouldn’t otherwise have it access to playing fields, to the idea of having a ‘coach’, to safe play time.
“Basic stuff you take for granted in the suburbs,” he says. And here in Ireland.
In another part of the city, Simon Gillespie is spending his days waiting for the indefinite resumption of Rugby United New York’s postponed season. For the past decade, Gillespie had worked as a bright and energetic development officer for New York GAA. His switch to rugby occurred almost accidentally: the new club, owned by a Limerick man, James Kennedy, played an exhibition game in Gaelic Park.
Gillespie was asked to give a coaching session on the skill of blocking, common in Gaelic football but which is rarely coached in rugby. Some time afterwards, he was approached about joining the club as academy coach. When he did join the club last August, it was as team manager. Rugby United New York are a new addition to 12 Major League Rugby (MLR) teams scattered across the country, from New Orleans to Seattle.
Mathieu Basteraud, the wrecking-ball French centre, was one of United’s biggest acquisitions when he moved to New York late last year. Former England fullback Ben Foden was already on the books. When United played their first game, in a converted baseball ground in Coney Island (which costs $5,000 per hour to rent) 2,500 spectators showed up, which was an encouraging start.
Rugby may be a world game but in New York it is, much like GAA, operating in the fringes of the major domestic sports. Gillespie had 10 years moving through the remaining Irish strongholds of the five boroughs promoting the sport. Now he was part of one, fixed small professional outfit in a sport trying to gain traction in a sports obsessed country.
“Yeah, that was a big adjustment. The GAA is very participation oriented. In professional sport it is all about the scoreboard. All of our coaching staff was replaced after last season even though they got to the semi-finals. But rugby in America is regarded as a sleeping giant.
“A lot of kids are playing it but the feeling is that if the USA could host the World Cup, it could help to replicate what happened in soccer. And the way it is sold to young players is that it is the easiest sport here to ‘make it’ as a professional. There is an urgent need for USA players so if that college football scholarship isn’t happening, he has a good shot at a contract if he plays rugby too.”
He laughs when asked about the strangest experience of his job to date. “Vegas,” he says. “It was a calamity.”
Because the MLR doesn’t schedule games for the East coast in February or early March, they decided it might be a good promotional idea to showcase Boston against New York in Vegas. Thirteen spectators showed up for the game. “And six of those came from New York,” Gillespie says.
But the actual games give him an opportunity to wind down for a few hours. The logistics of arranging flights, meals, hiring vans to transport the players and equipment, taking care of the luggage fall to him: any logistics manager is partially dependent on the competency of strangers. When they arrived in Vegas, the hotel had double booked the rooms so suddenly they were room-less in the biggest party city in the United States on an eight-day tour.
“My worst nightmare come true! We made a decision to get out of Vegas and book Airbnb places for the time we were there.” But it has been full on: on his most recent trip, before the Covid crisis, Gillespie remained on in San Diego for five days with a player who had fallen ill during the trip and then developed pneumonia.
“In season it is demanding and it is tough. We can’t really plan social weekends in-season. But it is exciting. I am nervous all week to make sure the flight goes on time or the meals are as ordered.”
So both Gillespie and Riordan are involved in the two sides of American sport: the relentlessly upwardly mobile trajectory of professional sport as business and entertainment and the less obvious side of American urban life where the opportunity to play any kind of structured sport is a rarefied luxury. Because the New York-Irish nexus is narrow, both men know each other.
Riordan has also put in the hours with New York GAA. He originally moved to the States as a journalist with the Irish Examiner: it wasn’t long before he was inveigled into becoming PRO for any club he got involved with. These days his pastime hours revolve around the New York Shamrock soccer club, an Irish-based side which was due to celebrate its 60th anniversary this year. Like the season, those plans have been shelved for now. But the past three years have, Riordan admits, revealed a side of New York which is, broadly speaking, hidden in plain sight.
“I was talking to a talented soccer kid, a Mexican immigrant, really good kid, mature. And I was chatting to him in West Harlem. What is your plan later? Will you come back and play a pick up game? And he said: ‘I would never come here unless you guys are here. It is not safe.’ That really hit me.
“And you know, if you go on the subway now and see a child sleeping across his mother’s lap, you instantly know that what is probably happening is a 90-minute commute to that child’s school before the family had to move to a homeless shelter somewhere.”
Because of that, closing the schools was a big social conundrum for the city. Open schools meant guaranteed free breakfasts and lunches that some children depended on. And the debate over what front-line healthcare staff that may not be able to afford childcare immediately kicked off. America Scores in New York reaches about 1,500 children. They don’t know when they are going to get to meet and work with them personally again.
In the meantime, they wait with the millions of other in the city for normal life to resume. Because all rugby clubs are paid centrally by MLR, salaries have been guaranteed to the end of the season. But while the appetite for baseball and basketball will be ravenous by the time the all-clear is given to sport, rugby faces the task of trying to gain traction again. Gillespie lives in Brooklyn. Like everyone else, he is working from home.
“It is eerily quiet every day. The streets have very little traffic. You do hear a lot of sirens now during the day. In the first part that wasn’t as common.” He’s looking forward to getting back to a more hectic schedule. The challenge facing Major League Rugby is much the same as Gaelic sport has faced in the city for years: trying to become more visible and attract a broader audience.
“I do feel we made progress at a time when immigration had become very slow,” he says of his 10 years with the association in New York.
“From 2001 to 2020, immigration from Ireland to here fell off. It became so much harder to get legal status. So we had to replace that with second generation Irish Americans. You could see it in Irish businesses here and the decline of Irish construction companies.
“We had to transition to the 21st century and I felt we did a good job of recruiting those guys. The names are all Irish still. We didn’t really crack a new audience. That is a challenge for the next generation.”
John Riordan lives in Chinatown. Many of his friends have had the luxury of fleeing the city to their home states for the worst of this crisis. “And I’d include myself in that; I’m one of the lucky ones.”
The children he works with don’t have that choice. Riordan has elected to stay in the city. Jane, his neighbour, is 70 and was born in the locality. She has been on his case from day one. “She’s been telling me to wash my hands way before it became cool,” he laughs.