After Katrina brought heartbreak and destruction to New Orleans, Kenny Farrell, the coach of the New Orleans Shell Shockers, the local Premier Development League team, immediately resolved to stay in the ravaged city. “We are determined not to abandon soccer fans in the city and will play in a parking lot if we have to,” Farell promised.
For months it looked like they would have to do just that.
The hurricane, killed around 1,600 people in Louisiana alone and affected an area the size of Great Britain. New Orleans, surrounded by hundreds of miles of crumbling and ill-maintained levees, was particularly hard hit.
The Shell Shockers’ home ground, Pan American Stadium in City Park, was battered and beaten by the storm. City Park (which is more than 150 years old and, at 1,300 acres, one of the 10 largest urban parks in the nation) suffered as much as 10 feet of flooding to 90 percent of its area. Every maintenance vehicle and piece of equipment was lost and officials, who receive no money from the city for operations, were forced to slash the workforce by 96 per cent, from 260 employees to just 11.
Things looked bleak for former League of Ireland player Farrell when he returned to New Orleans in October. The professional sports franchises like the Saints of the NFL and the Hornets of the NBA had already packed up and relocated to other cities. But relocation was never feasible for a smaller, minor-league sports club like the Shell Shockers. The amateur league features the best emerging talent in the country, with an emphasis on under-23s. Additionally, the players are not paid, so they remain eligible for college scholarships and careers.
The players and staff were scattered across the United States, and many had not been heard from in weeks, as communication using New Orleans-area cell phones was nearly impossible. Player/coach Stephen McAnespie, the ex-Fulham and Bolton Wanderers defender, had to be air-lifted out of the city by a Coast Guard helicopter after spending two days trapped on a roof and subsequently took a coaching job with the Indiana Invaders. Chairman Gary Ostroske and his family were rescued from his flooded home by a passing motorboat. In short, it appeared the Shell Shockers would not be able to assemble the personnel, let alone the facilities, necessary to compete in the upcoming season.
There was no electricity in vast swathes of the city and trying to find a training pitch, never mind a home ground, was virtually impossible. Many fields were under tons of rubble while boats and abandoned vehicles littered the parks. Simple day-to-day living in the Big Easy was anything but easy, never mind trying to organize and prepare a soccer side for a grueling campaign against some of the best developmental outfits in the U.S. The club pushed forward though, and set up temporary headquarters in a law firm.
It took months to find a suitable stadium. Even 12 months after the hurricane, Pan American was still without power, and the lack of floodlights meant a frustrating search for a suitable venue elsewhere in the city. Until a home ground was located, the club couldn’t sell sponsorships or plan for the season and, in the end, they were forced - just like hundreds of thousands of New Orleans residents - to evacuate New Orleans.
They spent the campaign training and playing in Kenner, near Louis Armstrong International Airport, on an American football field that had to be specially widened in order to accommodate the team. Matches took place with drains temporarily covered and huge dips as you neared the touchlines; but sympathetic opposing sides appreciated the city’s unique problems and never complained.
In the beginning of the season, it was evident the field wasn’t the only thing out of shape, as the players were reeling from a lack of fitness and match preparation. Playing in the Mid South Division of the Southern Conference, alongside four Texan outfits, all of whom fielded players who compete year-around in Mexican leagues, the Shell Shockers lost their first four games. Their opponents were fitter and sharper, and Farrell estimated his squad’s preparations were two months behind those of his opponents. Ten games into the season, apart from home and away successes against a young Austin Lightning line-up, they had lost every game.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Off the field, things started looking up for the Shell Shockers when local businessman Michael Balluff invested in the team to become a part-owner alongside Farrell and Ostroske. For the first time since the team’s formation in 2003, Balluff brought in full-time staff and the organizational support of his successful telecommunications company. Ironically, he had first talked to Farrell about investing just hours before Katrina roared ashore, and had arranged to meet three days after it hit. Hard-working married couple Patrick and Jai-Anne Miller, the general manager and administrative director of the club respectively, brought increased professionalism to the administrative aspect of the club, taking pressure off Ostroske and Farrell, who had previously been forced to handle it on their own. A greater awareness of the team, as well as interest in the upcoming FIFA World Cup, led to substantial local press coverage; for the first time in their history the Shell Shockers were on the front page of the Times Picayune sports’ section - twice.
Internationally, the spotlight was on them as well, and they were twice featured in the British tabloid The Sun, the world’s highest-selling English-language daily newspaper. They even got a mention on the British Broadcasting Company’s website. On their tour of the U.S.. the Northern Ireland international squad invited Farrell to a training session, and manager Lawrie Sanchez, a national hero after last year’s victory against England, was presented with a Shell Shockers’ jersey.
Although the city’s population is estimated to be half of what it was before Katrina, thousands of Central American workers have rushed to the area to grab construction jobs as the city attempts to rebuild itself. The club targeted the soccer-crazy fans and printed promotional material in Spanish, gave away translated parts of the match-day program as a free insert, and even launched a Spanish-language show on local radio to compliment Farrell‘s weekly program.
The Shell Shockers also bought a multi-million dollar state-of-the-art indoor soccer facility on the outskirts of the city. The arena, previously owned by Colin Rocke, a former Shell Shocker, had been ravaged by the hurricane and its huge metal doors, built to withstand 175 miles per hour winds, were ripped from their hinges and tossed almost 50 feet away. But the 33,000 square foot center did not flood. The Shell Shockers moved their organization into the converted warehouse and began to cross-brand and promote themselves to the hundreds of children attending summer coaching camps. They invested tens of thousands of dollars to overhaul and redesign the websites of both the club and Riverside.
At the end of June 20-year-old defender Nick Beasant, a center-half who trained with Chelsea as a schoolboy for nine years, flew in from England to join the back four. His experience, combined with a squad shake-up which saw some talented Louisiana teenagers introduced, helped the side to a late-season rally. They avoided defeat three times in the last six matches and gave debuts to locals like 16-year-old Josey Portillo and Brandon Chagnard, 18. But despite the occasional bright spot, the storm and its all-encompassing, all-pervading aftermath had done its damage, and of the 59 PDL outfits across the nation only seven finished with fewer points.
The Shell Shockers’ season, probably the most difficult and challenging campaign a minor league team has ever faced, finished with a glamour friendly against 20-time Honduran champions Olimpia. A record crowd of about 4,000 - double the previous highest attendance - crammed into a still-dilapidated Pan American to see the Central American giants win 3-0 against a line-up featuring the guesting Rocke and McAnespie. And the following week the Shell Shockers were back where they started - in the news. Beasant and team captain PJ Kee jetted to Chicago to meet the Chelsea superstars and present England captain John Terry with a Shell Shockers’ shirt, while the club even received a personal good luck message from David Beckham, the most iconic figure in world soccer.
But what comes next for the Shell Shockers? Coach Farrell remains optimistic and thinks the future is bright.
“This has been an incredibly difficult year under unbelievably taxing circumstances,” said Farrell. “It was one problem after another, and you name it, we have been forced to deal with it. I could talk for hours about the myriad list of obstacles we have had to overcome - everything from not being able to find an open restaurant for a pre-match meal, to a lack of flights to away games from the city, meaning we had to drag the players out of bed in the middle of the night, to not being able to find a shop to print names on jerseys.”
The manager also believes that this season, despite its obvious hardships, will eventually turn out to have done more good for the club then bad, and was philosophical about the impact of Katrina on the club and all its members, as well as the city itself. “All year the players gave everything and it augers well for coming seasons,” he stated. “We have young talent coming through, and with more time to prepare properly I am sure we’ll be in a position to challenge for the title next year.
“It’s unbelievable to think we are already at the one-year Katrina anniversary and life in New Orleans is still very hard for a lot of people. When you consider the scale and power of this hurricane it is nothing short of a miracle we were able to field a team at all. But we got through it. If there is a silver lining to all this I think that having overcome this challenge I can’t ever imagine we’ll face a tougher one.”