Chicago-based Tony Sampson is the the first Evertonian living outside the UK to take up the role as Chair of the Fans' Forum, and also represents the forum on the new Fan Advisory Board.
Ahead of the Blues’ pre-season trip to the US this July, he tells us about the warm welcome fans can expect when they arrive in Baltimore and Minnesota, and how the US supporters’ clubs’ plans have been inspired by the fan unity shown at the end of last season.
A true Blue welcome awaits in Baltimore and Minnesota.
Moving to another country brings with it a range of emotions, opportunities and challenges.
Nothing quite prepares you for the day you have to say goodbye to family and friends, but for me and my family there was no shortage of practical advice available on setting up a new life in the US - whether that be finding a place to live, schools, opening a bank account or setting up a new phone.
But the one thing that didn’t appear on any of the checklists was one of the things that mattered to us most.
I was born and raised in Liverpool and like so many Blues, my football allegiances were influenced by my dad, who at 90 still has his Season Ticket.
He first started taking me to Goodison when I was five or six. I was gripped from the first moment, drawn in by the smell, noise, feel and that sense of being part of something so special that being an Evertonian brings. Over the years, we developed our own matchday routines, which by the time we moved away, included my own two sons. Three generations of Evertonians together.
The matchday routine is very different out here in the US.
The walk up Goodison Road, popping into the Everton store, buying a programme next to the stall selling “hats, caps, scarves and your badge”, visiting St Luke’s and a pre-match pint in The Winslow, all replaced with early morning meet-ups in local host pubs with Evertonians – a combination of ex-pats and passionate North American fans – riding the highs and lows of supporting Everton together.
Different stories, routes and experiences, but all brought together by our love for Everton.
So, when the Club announced that the Blues were playing in not one - but two - cities in North America this summer, I, along with other North American-based Evertonians, was delighted.
Last season, we saw what a force of nature our fans can be in support of our great club. But it wasn’t just at home that this passion was felt – Evertonians everywhere were galvanised.
The coach welcomes, the sea of blue, the supporters pulling together as one, captured people’s attention around the world. Watching from the US, we saw TV cameras focusing on the fans at Goodison as much as the action on the pitch. Commentators in awe at the depth of feeling, passion and action. The raw emotion stretching right across the Atlantic.
It was a powerful signal of what unity amongst Evertonians can do. To be able to come together with UK-based Blues in person this July, inspired by the events at the end of last season, is helping to set the tone and fuel the excitement for what’s being planned for these pre-season games in the US.
The Baltimore and Minnesota Supporters’ Clubs are heavily involved in planning activities around the games, working tirelessly alongside the Club and members of the North American Toffees Supporter Group Leads Community, to create an exciting diary of events. There is a really strong sense of pride that we, as North American-based supporters, are going to be playing host to UK fans and Evertonians from around the world.
That planning will draw on the experience of UK-based fans and we are hoping to create some of that same passion and atmosphere over here, while adding our own US twist of course!
Tailgate parties, where fans park up their cars, break out BBQs and beers and meet together to party ahead of a game, are really popular, and this is a sporting tradition I know our US supporters would like to share with UK Evertonians in some way when they visit. We’re hoping that there’ll also be a few surprise guests along the way.
NBC Sports recently published a list of their top 15 English Premier League viewing markets in the US for the 2021/22 season – with Washington coming top and Baltimore joint 13th. With these two cities within striking distance of each other, it’s great to see our club targeting places with passionate football fan bases, positioning themselves to consolidate current relationships and create new ones.
Playing these games across two cities in two different states will allow a wide range of US Toffees to get together. We know that many of the North American Supporters’ Clubs will be represented at one or both games. It will be exciting for us to be able to welcome UK supporters too this year, with the relaxation of the pandemic travel restrictions.
The wider North American Evertonian scene is also going from strength to strength.
When I was elected to the Fans’ Forum a couple of years ago, I wanted to help build the connection between Blues based overseas and give them a voice in their club. I hoped that the perspectives I could offer as a Blue born in the city, now living a different type of support from Chicago, could help build that bridge.
Over the last couple of years, the Fans’ Forum has developed a network of more than 45 Supporters’ Group Leads across North America to collaborate on a series of projects to help strengthen how we connect as Evertonians in North America, build the Everton brand and spread the word.
There’s a strong willingness and desire to play our part in helping drive the Club’s presence, whether you’re a Blue in Arizona, New York or California.
We published an open letter welcoming Frank as our new Manager, submitted an official response to Liverpool City Council as part of the Bramley-Moore stadium consultation, we have our own North American Toffees bespoke hummel supporters’ club merchandise which has raised over $2000 for EitC, and we’ve had North American reps share our views in the development of the new Fan Advisory Board, and of course on the Fans’ Forum.
We now meet monthly as a group to share our views, develop plans and provide input to the Club on the issues that matter most to North American Toffees. We work well with the Fan Engagement team at the Club, who are receptive and who support our ideas for events, fundraising, or outreach, and provide us with resources that help raise awareness. They’ve listened to our ideas and suggestions about improving the availability of merchandise, leading to an expansion in the number of stores stocking Everton kits. The time difference means that they’re often attending our meetings well beyond midnight.
Last year, our North American Toffees Supporter Group launched the first ever EFC North American All Star Awards in Orlando, to celebrate the ties between North America and Everton. Dr David France - whose ground-breaking book, Toffee Soccer, on the connection between Everton and the US revealed links going back 140 years – was awarded the Trailblazer award to recognise his contribution to developing the Everton connection across North America. It was also no surprise that Tim Howard won the first player award. The 2022 nominations will be launched in the coming weeks.
The links that Dr France highlighted are only getting stronger.
As the Club works to build a commercial presence, it’s going to be equally as important that we capture young people’s hearts and minds as they develop their love of playing and watching the game.
Seeing our club embrace grassroots football across North America is a positive step forward. The expansion of the Summer Schools – 15 this year across the States - and the International Academy Affiliate Programme is really encouraging, and it’s fantastic to see a spread right across North America.
And instilling that Everton philosophy in these young people as both players and fans is building for our long-term future across North America.
The World Cup is also on its way to the US soon and it will be important Everton strategically positions itself to be the EPL team of choice for North American based fans, ready to fully engage with all of those new fans captured by our beautiful game and looking for a club to support. And we will be supporting the Club on the ground all the way.
While all this is important, the experience of attending a match together, as one fanbase, is paramount.
Evertonians always welcome US supporters at Goodison, and US fans always tell everybody back in the States what a brilliant time they have had in the city - and more importantly, at Goodison. A home away from home.
Now, as North American Toffees, we are genuinely excited to be able to return that experience.
There is, of course, nothing better than being at Goodison.
And I hold out for the time that me, my Dad and my two sons can get together there one more time.
But for those of us who cannot be there week in and week out, we want to join with travelling Evertonians to replicate the unique atmosphere of supporting the club we love in Baltimore and Minnesota.
Evertonians – see you in July!