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Evertonians are born not manufactured, but I was actually late getting that memo.
It was only when I started school in September 1995 that I realised I had been chosen. After copying my new best friend who had worn his blue Danka kit in class, I went home and excitedly declared to my Mum, “I’m an Evertonian".
“Well, that’s good,” she laughed. “We’re all Everton fans.”
I was already part of the Blue family but still so young, I hadn’t really known it. My Granddad travelled to Wembley in 1966 for the FA Cup final triumph, taking my Auntie and Mum - who both still recall watching Everton in the European Cup against Panathinaikos - to Goodison Park. The ground was just a short walk from their home in Kirkdale.
So this had always been my team and I soon became obsessed.
My most cherished possessions all feature the iconic flash through ‘Everton’ which adorned every piece of Club merchandise in the mid-1990s.
I constantly played the ‘All Together Now’ cassette, which featured Joe Royle’s squad on the case, and knew the Daniel Amokachi commentary long before I witnessed his brace against Tottenham: "Is this four? It is four!"
I pored over the official Club catalogue and can still distinctly see David Unsworth and Paul Rideout with their coiffed hair and immaculate Everton leisurewear.
My Merlin Premier League sticker album was often close by, too. Always open on the Toffees spread as I sorted through my Marc Hottiger swaps and ensured the shiny Everton badge remained in pristine condition.
I knew every detail of every sticker. Duncan Ferguson’s styled curtains, a beaming Joe Parkinson, Neville Southall’s tash and Gary Speed donning the blue and black socks with that collar.
Of course, I was always going to fall head over heels. Then came my first game. Saturday 17 August 1996. The opening day of the season.
It was a gloriously sunny day. Goodison was just so vibrant. The green turf was vivid and bright as it came into view. The yellow and black away shirt, clearly a massive summer hit, provided a sea of colour in every stand.
Only years after did I learn it had been Alan Shearer’s league debut for Newcastle. You wouldn’t have known it, though. It was the other No.9 who stole the show.
Big Dunc won the penalty for Unsworth to rifle home before hanging in the air to head the ball down for Gary Speed to score. A love affair had begun and a hero was born. I was completely Everton daft and have remained so ever since.
Looking back, little did I know how my adoration for this club as a kid would shape so much of my life.
Realising early I would never be good enough to play, I planned to be the next John Motson instead.
I was 11 when I attended the FA Youth Cup semi-final in March 2002 at Goodison. This was my first glimpse of Wayne Rooney and, sitting in the Main Stand behind the press box, my Mum spotted an opportunity.
Telling BBC Radio Merseyside reporter Phil Kinsella of my ambition to follow in his footsteps, he incredibly, and very kindly lifted me over the barrier and I sat with him for the entire game with a pair of oversized headphones on.
Tasked with keeping him up-to-date with who had scored (of course he knew himself), I could hear the live radio output and jokingly reported every single detail of the news bulletin back to Mum, informing her of the weather forecast and the sad fact actor Dudley Moore had passed away.
So amazed at the situation, after Mr Kinsella had recorded his full-time report and headed down to interview the players, my Mum and I discovered we were locked inside the stadium, every other fan had long gone.
Cue shouting the groundsman down on the pitch who got a shock and swiftly arranged for us to be guided out onto Goodison Road.
From that moment, I was determined to become a football reporter.
After 18 months with Radio City Sport during my A-Levels - having cornered pitch announcer Simon Ross outside Goodison to ask how I could gain some work experience - I attended university, where a passion for writing overtook broadcasting.
From there I landed a job at a national newspaper six months after graduating. The love I had for Everton at the age of four directly put me on that path.
My journalism career led to interviews with Super Kevin Campbell, Trevor Steven, Kevin Sheedy, Big Nev and Dave Watson.
I spoke with Kevin Mirallas in one of the changing rooms at Finch Farm, chatted to Old Trafford matchwinner Bryan Ovideo and surreally got a head nod from Samuel Eto’o in the tunnel after covering Everton’s epic Europa League win over Wolfsburg.
The highlight, though, was interviewing my idol Duncan Ferguson at the training ground following his testimonial. For a brief five minutes, it was just the two of us in the press room as he pointed at pictures and shared his memories with me. I couldn’t resist telling him that the interview had been a complete dream come true.
"It’s nae problem, Elliott," he smiled. I was a 24-year-old professional but all I could do all the way home was buzz at the fact Big Dunc now knew my name.
I’ve also been fortunate to work abroad with people of various nationalities. When they heard about the city I grew up near, they would sometimes make the wrong assumption when it came to the team I supported.
I always took immense pride in swiftly correcting them. “No, Everton,” I’d grin. “The Toffees".
Many of my friendships have stemmed from Everton, too. A drunken conversation in a Lille bar following the Europa League game there led me to meet Blues I now consider two of my best mates.
It’s incredible the people you meet and forge a bond with simply because they also know of the amazing salt and pepper chicken wings in the Blue Dragon or the exact row they landed in after Mikel Arteta’s strike against Fiorentina.
When we faced Mainz and Bremen in pre-season back in 2020, I had an incredible 10 days in Germany, enjoying nights out with a group of Evertonians who had recognised me from the match and asked me to join them as they supped beers outside a riverside restaurant.
During a trip to Budapest, I had a lengthy conversation with a hotel receptionist about Craig Short as he had managed in Hungary. It’s remarkable, really.
Later on, I went for a tour of Ferencvaros’ home ground. There were only two of us. The guide asked who we each supported. I answered first and the other guy, who was from Kentucky in the United States, had a look of amazement on his face. Yep, he too was an Evertonian. We were now mates for the day.
Even during the biggest, most personal moments of my life, Everton has played a part.
In a couple of years, very few Blues will readily recall our goalless draw at Watford last season. Despite not seeing a kick, I will remember it for the rest of my life because two hours after the full-time whistle, at a quarter to midnight, I became a Dad.
As my girlfriend was in labour, the midwife chatted to put us at ease and asked about my work and then which club I supported. “Oh, really? My brother-in-law used to be a coach at Everton,” she said.
Lying there with gas and air, my other half gave me a sideways glance as if to say, ‘Seriously, even now, of all times, Everton’s cropped up again?’
Later that night, the midwife put me in a horrible spot by asking: “What was the final Everton score?” I hesitated before replying, “0-0, it’s a point.”
My girlfriend looked at me again, rolled her eyes and laughed. Yes, we would welcome my daughter into the world shortly but, obviously, I’d given a few seconds to my beloved Everton and sneaked a look at the result on my phone.
That’s what is so special. Everywhere you go, any situation you find yourself in, there’s Everton. Instant connections with strangers because they understand. They know.
Gwladys Street is home for me. As the latest flag is unfurled ahead of kick-off and wafts next to my head in the heart of the iconic stand, I know I belong.
The walk along County Road and up Spellow Lane will be ingrained in my mind for the rest of my life.
I was born into a family of Blues and my Blue family has continued to grow and grow over the years.
Everton is part of me. It always has been and always will be.
By Elliott Bretland, Evertonian