Ralph's Mob, a local supporters' group for the Tampa Bay Rowdies, is preparing for its 10th anniversary season in 2019. | Photo courtesy the Tampa Bay Rowdies
TAMPA, Fla. – Few people know the soccer scene in Tampa Bay better than Rowdies legend Perry Van der Beck.
The former U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder joined the club in 1978 and has been a mainstay in the community ever since. Van der Beck enjoyed multiple stints with the team during his playing career and led what he calls “the Rebirth of the Rowdies” in 2008 as Technical Director of the modern-day franchise.
Throughout those experiences around the Rowdies’ organization, Van der Beck has seen what the local fanbase is all about.
“When I think of the soccer culture here for the Rowdies, I think of two words: Ralph’s Mob,” Van der Beck said in a phone interview this week. “They’re the passionate fans that the Rowdies have always had since Day 1. You know, going back to the early days in 1975 when the team won the championship and then in ‘78 and ‘79 went to the Soccer Bowl Final. Ever since that, fans have always had an identity with the team.”
Tampa Bay Rowdies fans haven't forgotten about the original version of the team that kicked off in 1975. | Photo courtesy the Tampa Bay Rowdies
As the first professional sports team in Tampa Bay ahead of the Buccaneers’ arrival in 1976, the Rowdies have retained a special place for the fans of that era, who subsequently passed on stories of when Van der Beck, Rodney Marsh, Mike Connell and Farrukh Quraishi played for the side. The club’s original song – featuring the line “the Rowdies are a kick in the grass” that now adorns Big Storm Brewing’s official club beer – still plays at Al Lang Stadium, and through that the fans’ identification with the team has remained.
A lot of that also has to do with Ralph’s Mob, a local supporters’ group that has cheered on the modern-day franchise since it took the field for the first time in 2010.
“We have a lot of historical pride and memory. A lot of our Mob members were fannies of the original Rowdies and all that stuff,” said Aron Retkes, Vice President of Ralph’s Mob. “So, we have a lot of historical sense of pride here that I think a lot of other groups can be kind of jealous about because we have such a long history.”
Ralph’s Mob is forging quite the history of its own as it heads into its 10th anniversary season. The group, which started talking on message boards in 2008 when the FC Tampa Bay project was first announced, is expecting more support than ever during the 2019 USL Championship season.
“In the beginning, we kind of started as a chant-only group and that’s kind of how it is formulated even to the present day,” said Retkes. “We focus and prioritize our voices versus a whole bunch of drums and everything like that. We try to be kind of a unified sound.”
From player-specific chants to traditional team ones, that sound can be heard in full force at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg all season long. That’s not the only place you’ll hear them, though.
“We love to focus a little bit more on away trips now that we have more trips within striking distance with Birmingham [Legion FC] coming in,” said Retkes. “Anything out of Florida is a long trip because it’s a 5-6 hour drive just to get out of the state, so anything in the Southeast region that pops up, we’re always excited about.”
In addition to going to Birmingham for the first time this season, the Mob is making the trip to Slugger Field when the Rowdies take on two-time defending USL Cup champion Louisville City FC in September.
There are also plans in place for the group’s annual trip to Charleston, which is set to take on new meaning this year. The Mob has partnered with the Skyway Casuals – a new Rowdies supporters’ group – and Battery fan groups Queen Anne’s Revenge and The Regiment to start a new cup competition.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies and Charleston Battery will be competing for a supporters' trophy when the two sides meet in 2019. | Photo courtesy Matt May / Tampa Bay Rowdies
“All four of us are going to be putting together a supporters’ trophy between the two clubs and kind of bringing the pirate history between both cities [together] in a themed supporter trophy,” said Ralph’s Mob President Jesse Novoa.
Other away days will be spent across the Tampa Bay metro area, as the Mob has partnered with Wild Rover Brewing Company (Tampa), Jimmy’s Sports Bar (St. Petersburg) and the Shamrock Pub (Sarasota) to host watch parties.
However, the Mob’s home pub location is Thirsty First in St. Petersburg, where it hosts a pre-game party ahead of Rowdies home matches. Members typically split time between that location and a parking-lot tailgate before marching as one into the stadium.
“They’re marching through the streets of St. Pete into the parking lot, into the stadium and just start singing,” Van der Beck said of the pre-game atmosphere. “And as players, as a staff member on the team, you hear that, you feel that, and you just say, there they are and they’re always cheering you on.
“The fans here have always been – for me – unwavering. They’re unwavering support. Win or lose, rain or shine, they’ve always been here.”
That will certainly be the case on Saturday when the Rowdies host Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in the club’s home opener on Saturday night.
Members of Ralph's Mob raise a tifo during the club's final home game of 2018 against the Charlotte Independence. | Photo courtesy the Tampa Bay Rowdies
Novoa says the Mob has a tifo worthy of the occasion ready to go before kickoff and is excited to pump up Head Coach Neill Collins’ new-look squad take the field for meaningful action.
But most of all, he’s ready to reunite with his fellow Mob members.
“I think that’s the biggest thing that I’m looking forward to is getting back in the stands with my Rowdies family if you will and enjoying soccer, enjoying something that we love together.”