In Great Britain fans don’t pick their soccer clubs; the club picks them, usually before birth.
As a proud Virginian, however, I successfully avoided the English Premier League until 2013.
European football brushed against my life through friends and co-workers who fervently followed the ups and downs of EPL, La Liga and Champions League. It never piqued my interest until last August, when my family stayed in Boulder at the house of Johnny Jyemo, a roving percussionist and session player in a series of bands. He played with three different bands over the course of our couple-day stay, and he always wore soccer jerseys to gigs. I asked Johnny where the world’s best football is played, and he thought a bit before saying the EPL.
When an NBC Sports link about how to choose a side showed up in my Twitter feed soon after, I checked it out. Three teams that caught my interest: Everton, Newcastle and Stoke City. I liked the sound of Everton’s style of scrappy overachievement, Newcastle’s edginess (the fan who punched a police horse!) and the comparison between Stoke City and my beloved Chicago Football Bears.
Of those three, I chose Everton based on the fact its style appealed to me and general gut feeling (meaning: This is the team I would have chosen as a 6-year-old based on its uniform colors of royal blue and white).
Chuck Culpepper wrote in his 2008 book “Bloody Confused!: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer” about his first season cheering for Portsmouth, a scrappy underachieving team that challenged that year for European football (though since publication of Culpepper’s book it’s twice been relegated down to play in League 2). My situation paralleled his, except that while he attended games home and away in person, I followed Everton through the magic of the Internet.
I followed Everton’s Twitter account, as well as those of reporters who covered it. I subscribed on iTunes to the RadioCity Everton Matchbook, which essentially functioned like the NFL Red Zone channel in that it boiled each 90-minute game plus pre- and post-match manager comments down to a lean 23 minutes or so. I started to learn the team through broadcasters Alan Irving and Graeme Sharp.
As the season progressed I purchased a used, inexpensively-priced copy of James Corbett’s “Everton: School of Science,” which traced the team’s history season by season from its founding in 1878 up through the 2002-2003 season. (When I tweeted about approaching the end of the book, Mr. Corbett generously emailed me a PDF of a new chapter appended to later editions that went through 2010-2011.)
I experimented with the ESPNFC podcast in the early weeks of the season but found its tendency to focus mostly on the biggest games left me with insufficient Everton material. I often looked to the football knowledge of roller derby friend Kitten Scarentino, and here she pointed me to Men in Blazers, an EPL-focused podcast. I found Men in Blazers at the ideal moment as a first-year fan, when I had enough knowledge to appreciate their banter, even if I didn’t understand every bit of it. Even better, one of the hosts, Roger Bennett, was an Everton fan.
To the season: I had little sense of continuity as longtime Everton manager David Moyes left for Manchester United, replaced by Roberto Martinez. Early on, I had no idea who Everton should be beating or beaten by, so I listened to draws with Norwich, West Brom and Cardiff, and a win over Chelsea without truly understanding what I was hearing.
I started to recognize player names slowly. Ross Barkley and Seamus Coleman jumped out early as goal scorers. I jeered Kitten when Moyes made a bid for both Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini, and I felt better when Everton made it through the transfer window selling Fellaini for only a bit less than the initial bid for the two players together. Better yet I soon learned that new transfer and loanee James McCarthy and Romelu Lukaku were formidable, as Lukaku scored a series of key goals while McCarthy and Manchester City loanee Gareth Barry were color commentator Graeme Sharp’s most frequent choices for “Motor Range Man of the Match.”
As the season progressed I discovered the TuneIn app and TalkSport.com as ways to livestream games. I thrilled to Everton’s win against Manchester United at Old Trafford, and I learned that TalkSport lagged realtime when I had the Boxing Day loss at home versus Sunderland spoiled via Twitter.
In January, I ran the Frozen Toe 10K—the worst race I’ve run in my life. I blame my lack of exercise the month before, a weeks-long chest cold, but most of all, the fact I save the Goodison Park edition of the Everton derby versus Liverpool until my drive down the mountain. Though a 3-3 draw, the match broadcast (which featured Everton commentators Irving and Sharpe working with Liverpool commentators X and X) saw ups and downs that — although I knew the result beforehand (all of the Radio City podcasts display the final score in the episode title)—still depleted all my adrenalin before the race.
I suffered through Everton’s January, which included a second draw to West Brom and a 4-0 shellacking by Liverpool in the Anfield edition of the derby and a 1-0 loss to Tottenham in a key game.
The season’s apex first (of two) came for me on Feb. 22, when I drove across the state to hear Everton lose to Chelsea in injury time via a John Terry goal off a Frank Lampard penalty kick at Stamford Bridge. I shouted profanities in my car, then called my brother to tell him how bullshit that penalty was (this despite the fact I didn’t see the penalty in question but only heard it through a radio broadcast).
My fandom carried into the 2014 World Cup, where I watched games while working on freelance stories. For the first time, I felt worry watching winger Kevin Mirallas, one of my favorite players for Everton, enter the game as a substitute for Belgium against the United States Men’s National Team, including Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard.
After the World Cup, I kept a close watch on Everton’s dealings in the transfer market and rejoiced as it re-signed key players, as well as locking down 2013-14 loanees Gareth Barry and Romelu Lukaku as permanent signees.
And now, the 2014-15 EPL season has started. Everton already dropped two points by allowing a late goal to newly promoted Leicester City that turned a win into a draw. I can live with that, so long as the Toffees don’t follow the route of Culpepper’s Pompey and suffer relegation so soon after that first breakout season of fandom.