When I look back on year one of the Canadian Premier League, perhaps the thing I’ll most remember is both my surprise and near total satisfaction at the authentic, switched-on supporter culture that seemed to spring-up instantly from coast-to-coast. In many cases, these groups were founded on the faint promise/whiff of an eventual league, sometimes YEARS in advance of anything real, which can only be seen as proof-positive of the hunger for a domestic league in this country.
Truly, these passionate fans put our nascent league on their backs, and, in many ways, we can thank them for such a successful first kick at the can. From day one, all seven teams had a proper 12th player. That is awesome because this stuff matters.
Living in Toronto with many friends now employed by the league gives one a unique overview (albeit cold and aloof, such is the Toronto way). Combine that with the proximity to both Forge and York 9, and one could find themselves quite able to observe two distinct and passionate fan-bases emerge from the ether to rousing fanfare.
But Canada is not the GTA, and we could see this grassroots supporter culture taking shape everywhere—and in each market, subtle differences owing to the different local flavour that makes Canada so enigmatic. The flip side, of course, is those differences begat different challenges.
So, when your ace cub reporter found himself engaged on a month long gig in Winnipeg last July, he naturally doubled down on the CPL angle and got mighty cozy with the great people of Red River Rising, the Valour FC Supporters Group.
I attended an open practice, hit an away game at The Kings Head Pub (vs. Forge, of all teams), and finished off the trifecta with a home match against eventual dual split-season champs Cavalry FC, where I got to experience ‘The Trench’ in full voice, plus cowbell!
They even gave me one of those custom fan-made red cards as a souvenir; the very same red cards that became a league-wide curio for both legs of the final. (Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery).
I also made a quickee little video about my adventures:
To say I was impressed with what Red River Rising have built in the ‘Peg is a massive understatement. I was beside myself, just flabbergasted by the passion and effort. They’ve built a real community there, stacked with great people more than willing to put in the work. It’s a situation I’ve seen throughout the CPL, and it’s beyond wonderful.
So, as we wait patiently for the coming second season of the CPL, it’s the perfect time to rope in Red River Rising President and one of the most passionate CPL fans I know, Nicky Cottee, to answer some questions and give us some hard-won insight into the inner workings of soccer support in Manitoba.
What attracted you to the CPL?
As a member of the Voyageurs, I was (first) attracted to the CPL for the development opportunities it would bring to Canadian players. That was the main thing that excited me, the chance to support a pro team in my city was a close second though. I moved to Winnipeg in 2015, right around the time that we first started hearing the CPL rumours, and I clung to every bit of news I could find. I had come from London, where my access to regular live soccer was decent, with MLS & National Team games within a 2-hour drive, and the closest NWSL team 4 hours away. In Winnipeg, I suddenly found myself relegated to watching games on TV. For the first time, I felt the isolated frustration of my fellow Prairie Voyageurs, and a CPL team couldn’t come fast enough.
How did Red River Rising start?
Red River Rising began before we even knew if Winnipeg would have a team. Towards the end of 2016, Adam Johnson put the call out on Twitter to see if there was an interest in starting a supporter group here. 10 of us met at Nicolino’s Restaurant in January 2017. We were a small group, but we were passionate and driven to push for a team in (Winnipeg).
What’s in a name? Would a River less Red smell just as sweet?
We held a vote for the name. I think there were maybe five options in total. Red River Rising was the clear winner. I don’t think there was really any intent to be controversial. We just liked the alliteration, that the Red River is so intertwined with the identity of this community, and that it felt strong.
What was the relationship like with the Front Office?
Honestly, our relationship with the FO wasn’t great in the beginning. Not so much that it was bad, but I don’t think they knew what to make of us. They didn’t have any experience with soccer supporters groups, and I don’t think they understood what we were all about until after the first home game. Things have gotten better, now that they understand what we bring to the game day experience.
Tell us about some Challenges & Surprises from year one?
The biggest surprise was how quickly the Trench came together. We knew we had about 150 to 200 people with us, but we had never had more than 30-40 people out for our events, so we had no idea what was going to happen during the home opener. We had a tonne of great original songs thanks to Ian Smith, but I figured it would take some time to get everyone singing together. I was truly blown away with that first game. The whole section sang for the full 90 and we never looked back.
There haven’t been that many challenges, surprisingly. There is a pretty rich history of supporter culture within Canada, so a lot of people in our section came with previous experience in the stands. They get that we are the 12th man on the pitch, and we never give up. And the people that are brand new to supporting have picked the culture up quickly. I would say our biggest challenge has been our struggle to light smoke in the stadium. We see the supporters groups in other stadiums lighting it with the blessing of their teams. People are honestly getting quite frustrated because we bring the atmosphere every game, but we aren’t allowed to fully express our support in a way that feels true to supporter culture.
One of the things I noticed on my trip was how strong your relationship was with local businesses that happily opened their doors to your group. Can you speak a bit on that?
We’ve been fortunate to have established strong partnerships with both Nicolinos and the Kings Head. Our history with Nicolinos goes back years. Nick has always welcomed us for our Canada viewing parties, so it felt like a natural place to hold our first meeting. Nicolinos has amazing food, and it is close to the stadium, so it is a perfect place to gather pre-game and march.
The Kings Head is really the only footy pub in the city, and we love those guys. They have done so much to support us, and Valour, including running busses out to the stadium before every game. They have seasons tickets in our section, and Chris is always good for yelling out a few classic taunts that get the whole section (and on occasion, even the gaffer on the sidelines) laughing.
Last year we split Valour away viewings between Nicolinos and the Kings Head. The Kings Head is really central in the city so I think we will host most away viewings there this year and continue to do our Canada viewings at Nicolinos, as well as the March to the stadium. Once the schedule comes out, we will post all away viewings on our website.
What makes Winnipeg a great CPL market?
Canada’s multi-cultural mosaic makes many Canadian cities ripe for a CPL market, and Winnipeg certainly has a thriving multi-cultural community. I haven’t lived in all Canadian cities, so I can’t say this is unique to Winnipeg, but certainly more so than any other city I’ve lived in (including Toronto), there is real interconnectivity between the different cultural communities. There is a shared celebration here for the many different cultures that thrive, and one of the common threads of each community is a shared passion for football. For a long time, people didn’t have a team to support locally. I think there is still so much untapped potential here within the many different ethnic communities.
What do you hope to see in Year 2 and beyond?
I want to see Valour average attendance approach the 7000 range this year, and eventually get to 10,000. I think it is doable. I’d love to get the entire stadium singing some of our songs. We got close on that last year. We will successfully execute our first TIFO in year 2. And hopefully, we will get smoke.
I know community outreach is very important to you and the rest of Red River Rising, as are group meetings outside of game days to foster the community. You guys have done some awesome stuff, and it would be a disservice to not mention it here.
Last year, the only community outreach we did was Winnipeg Harvest collection. But we are planning to do some volunteer work this year, and are considering where to invest our time.
A year ago, many of us were strangers, and now we have become family, which is very cool. We stand together in section 144, but we have a lot of fun together outside of the stadium as well. Last season, we hosted our first ever Trench games, where we competed in events like a Table Kicking contest and a Grenade Toss. We’ll be on the lookout for more on-field inspiration to add more events for our 2nd Annual Trench games. We are also planning to go as a group to watch a Winnipeg Ice game next month.
Was it a struggle to keep singing through some of those big losses?
For the most part, no.
From the beginning, long before the first ball was kicked, we decided that we had two objectives. To have fun, and to support the team, win or lose. That 8-0 loss put us to the test, and 90% of the section kept signing. At a certain point, the score line becomes absurd, so we started to make fun of the situation a bit with our songs, and we kept singing.
There is a small group of people that want to boo and stop singing when the team is down, and that has been a bit of a challenge. They have spent their lives supporting Euro teams and they bring so much passion to our section, which is amazing. But watching your team play on TV in a bar is a very different experience from supporting a team in the stands, especially a team in Canadian (or American) stands. In the bar, jeering has no impact on team performance, because they can’t hear you. In the stands, especially here, the supporter section is often the only section bringing any noise, and the team counts on us. We are part of the team on game day, and we play an important role. It wouldn’t be ok if one of the players on the pitch just gave up during the game, and it isn’t ok for us to give up. Booing the team is never going to have a positive impact on the game. But the players have told us over and over, that when we sing even when they struggle, it encourages them to keep fighting. It doesn’t mean we aren’t critical of the team, or performances after the game, but on game day, we continue to fight until the whistle blows.
I was talking about this with another Valour supporter who also supported TFC in the stands through those early years when the losses far outnumbered the wins. I had just moved out of Toronto when TFC launched, so I mostly watched those games on TV. When I mentioned that a few people wanted to boo Valour already, she chuckled and said, “Those boo birds are going to have to toughen up”. It might make some people feel better to boo, but it doesn’t help the team, and it takes a lot more strength to keep singing.
Our mission: To support in the stands, win or lose, is not unique to supporter culture in Canada & the US, but for a few people, it is a new way to support. It is still a bit of a learning curve for some, but fortunately, there are so many with experience in our section leading the way. And at the end of the day, there is so much passion here, which is incredible.
What’s your take on away travel in the CPL, considering the expense and distances?
Away travel is one of my favourite things about supporting. I love meeting up with fans across the country. I hit 4 of 7 stadiums last season, and will hit most of the rest this year. As a group we are planning a big Alberta away trip this year. As soon as we see that schedule...
Now, let’s talk about those Red Cards. I treasure mine, and people need to know the whole story.
Nicky called in a ringer—Fountain of Winnipeg Soccer History and the first person on your pub quiz team Jake Cadigal to chime in. Jake’s Winnipeg Soccer Fandom goes deep (and gets the capital treatment), as he was one of those initial 10 people at the beginning of this adventure.
Winnipeg used to have a professional soccer club called the Winnipeg Fury from 1987 to 1993. It was in the Canadian Soccer League, which was dominated by the Vancouver 86ers. The Fury, like our Valour, was at the bottom of the standings most of the time. A bunch of us fans started a small supporters group that initiated cheers and... the red card tradition. A fan named Rick started cutting up plastic binders into red cards and gave them to fans. At ANY poor call or tackle, we would point the red card (even when it was a yellow), and yell “red card!” furiously (pun intended). Then we would do the same at any Canada match (Pan-Ams, World Cup Qualifying, etc). It made it fun for the fans and supporters, so we kept that tradition for Valour. In the end, our underdog Winnipeg Fury won the Canadian Soccer League Championship in 1992—the last year of the CSL.
Fan support is imperative and if the red card can bring harmless joy to our passionate supporters, and maybe even a CPL Championship, so be it! Let the tradition continue. We now use light plastic, for its durability, recyclability, and convenience.
I’d like to thank Nicky for her time and the entire RRR family for showing me such great hospitality. I know these cats are doing great things, and will continue to shape what supporter culture in Canada looks like.
For more information on Red River Rising:
THIS WEEK’S PLAYLIST:
Is a collection of the original tunes that Red River Rising adopted into chants for year one. The lyrics for the adapted versions are on the website: http://www.redriverrising.ca/songs/