So let's start with this picture. It's pretty rare that the most unexpected, mind-blowing moment of your life is captured in a photo, but that's what this is.
April 9, around 6pm. The delirious clown with scarf in one hand and hat in the other is me.
And I'm taking a pen. At the Park End. AT GOODISON.
I'm like a Vatican tourist who just jumped the fences to stand where the Pope delivers Mass on Sundays. Ridiculous. Impossible.
So how in the hell did this come to happen?
OK, first the backstory for those not aware. I've been a US Blue since ‘85… not easy when American TV was showing one English game a week, always ManU, Arsenal or you-know-who. Couldn't support a team among that bunch, so I just cheered for whoever ManU was playing.
The moment that turned me into a Blue was Kevin Sheedy's famous double free kick against Ipswich in the Cup tie. Pure magic. After that I followed Everton in the newspaper and caught a few more games on TV. I watched the '95 Cup final in a California soccer bar (UK translation: footy pub) packed with several hundred ManU fans and one solitary Blue… cheering Rideout's goal very, very quietly.
Pete and Keith. Everton spirit personified.
Many of you know this next part. Incurable cancer. Surgery, treatment, complications. Shit, you fucking idiot, you waited too long… never get to Goodison now.
But I caught a break. Remission. Unexpected, glorious remission. Time added on. And not just time, but really good time, strong, not sick, feeling great. So no more waiting. Wife off to her native China to visit family. Have a good time, dear. I'm going to England.
And when I posted my intentions on TW in January, I got a flood of get-your-ass-over-here-mate-we'll-take-care-of-ya. Eventually two magnificent gents named Peter Mills and Keith Harrison stepped all the way up to deliver everything from travel guidance to tour services to game tickets.
Blue Mecca, here I come.
One day. In chronological order, three planes, four trains. If there's a record for the most conveyances in a 24-hour period, it's mine. After a puddle-jumper flight from my little beach town to Portland, and then a slightly bigger hop from Portland to Seattle, British Airways to Heathrow (awesome movie selection, not enough food), and then the Underground to Kings Cross, transfer to London Euston, and a Virgin Train to Lime Street (with a change at Crewe). This is a Steve Martin movie.
People keep asking about my Everton ballcap, from the BA flight crew to the immigration man to the young Irish lawyer on the train who studied in my hometown of Chicago and with whom I chat sports for over an hour. (He turns out to be a ManU fan, but I don't say anything sarcastic.) And all the way I'm wondering how the ToffeeWeb contingent awaiting me will react to the strange Yank dropping into their midst.
I'm met at Lime Street Station by His Honor Rob Halligan, the white-haired Official TW Ambassador to Visitors From The Colonies. As he walks me to my hotel, I realize there's a serious language barrier. I've played footy with Englishmen, Irishmen and Scots over the decades and thought I could handle most accents, but the scouser variant is beyond me. I'm able to grasp about one out of every three words Rob says to me (with the hotel desk clerk it's one out of four). Gotta be driving Rob crazy asking him to repeat everything. But his patience with my density is limitless.
We take a little walking four around the Liverpool One area, with the first stop being the Everton Two store (ah, Liverpool One, Everton Two, may it actually happen someday!). I steal a jersey for £20, marked down from 50 — perhaps because the Chang logo is going away — and I have my kit for the game. Rob shows me our owner's latest acquisition and explains what a Liver bird is, then I see for the first time why Evertonians regard Kings Dock with such wistfulness — what a setting that would have been for the club. After my first UK fish and chips, it's back to the hotel for an extended coma.
My TW travel agent Peter Mills treats me to an auto tour of Liverpool, including a swing by our future home at Bramley-Moore Dock — no sewer smell detected — and the Hope Street cathedrals, before I finally get my first look at Goodison. We do a couple of loops around the park to see the historical displays, and then it's on to Pete's home in Crosby for a pastie-and-pie lunch in his garden and a quick trip to the expansive beach on the Irish Sea, with the eerie standing sculptures in the mud.
And then I get to see my very first game in Britain — an Ivo-Stik Premier Division game (7th level of English football) between Pete's hometown Marine AFC and visiting Mickleover Sports. I love local grounds like this with houses on all sides, one covered stand and crowds of 300 or so. I want to buy a Marine jersey because hey, who else in America has one? Unfortunately, they've already run out for the year. In a less-than-cracking late-season battle for 18th in the table, the home side scores first but fails late in a 3-1 defeat. (Typical Marine!) Given the perfect weather and Pete's delightful company, I can't imagine a more pleasurable day.
Except, of course, if I'd bet on One For Arthur to win the Grand National.
With two big fellas — Dixie and Rob Halligan
OK, Keith, let's head inside. Through the Park End gate, up the stairs and out… and there it is. The green pitch, the blue seats, the footballs flying around. I'm here. And I lose it. I choke up and start leaking. Damn, Keith, I thought I had fucked this up. No, mate, he says, you made it.
And there's Kev down on the pitch. He's a part-time groundsman, using that long metal thing to tamp down the grass after watering. How lucky did I get to have him reach out on TW???
Keith and I talk a little footy… I opine that Schmeichel is a superb fundamental keeper but lacks the talent for the big saves… and then the seats are filling and I head up to mine in Row EE. Z-cars, the parade onto the pitch, Grand Old Team. I'm singing and overdosing on goosebumps.
Kickoff, and I'm officially watching Everton in person. Cool. I mention to the gent next to me that it's my first Goodison game after 32 years of waiting. And suddenly Super Kev is slicing through and being pulled down, and Davies arrives after a 60-yard run and fires home. The Park End levitates, and while I'm still in midair I glance at the clock and it reads 32 seconds. That's right, 32 years, then 32 seconds. You couldn't write that into a movie script. And I'm suddenly sobbing like a five-year-old. My neighbors must think it's an odd way to celebrate an opener, but nobody says anything.
After that, there's no way we can lose. Sure enough, Barks hooks a two-iron onto Rom's forehead for 2-2. Then Barks is rounding Schmeichel for a sure… oh, my god, that's the guy I said never made big saves, and that was amazing. And it costs nothing, because Super Kev's corner is perfect and the captain flies highest. BAM. 3-2. The crowd is chanting to the Leicester supporters, “Up 2-1 and you fucked it up… up 2-1 and you fucked it up.” Love it.
The second half is pure pleasure, especially after Jags soars for another corner and his deflection falls to Rom for the clincher. My neighbor and I are agreeing that Schneids is pure class, Barks is having a party and the previously-panicky Matty is now maturing before our eyes into a Prem defender.
And it's over. Two more rounds of Grand Old Team and the place empties out with startling speed, and Keith and I head down to the corner. Is this really gonna happen?
Yep. Here's Kev. He walks us onto the pitch, telling us to pretend we're old friends. (Well, we all are, sort of.) We get photos on the end line, and then in the goal, and then I actually have the bollocks to ask him if I can take a pen. Incredibly, he says OK. I put down the autographed ball on the spot. Keith goes in goal. Don't save it, mate. I sidefoot it like I've done my whole life and listen for the rippling sound of the net. I hear it. I must be hallucinating. That didn't really just happen. Hope we haven't gotten Kev in trouble. The Lukaku-sized official requesting our immediate departure from the pitch looks peeved.
And then the next day I find that photo on my phone. Snapped by Kev at the exact moment. You are one great human being, sir. Later Kev will tell me that the corner I picked for my pen is the same one Sheedy hit for that second free kick, the one that turned me Blue. Cosmic.
I never even dreamed a day this good.
With Kev Johnson
Scotland. Trains. Rains. Cullen skink. Raining in Fort William. Raining sideways in Mallaig.
Edinburgh is a fantastic walking city. Beautiful old buildings by the hundreds. Beautiful young women by the thousands. I photograph neither. I buy a cashmere scarf for my wife as a tacit apology for my impure thoughts. The proprietor is a Rangers fan who teases me about my Everton hat. I tease him about Kenny Miller's finishing.
End of travelogue. Paul Theroux I'm not.
A lovely Lake District tour with Keith and a very comfortable night at the Harrison Hotel. The view from Keith's front door seems to take in half of Northern England.
Game tomorrow. What we are gonna do to Burnley….
Great gathering at the Winslow… Keith, Pete, Patrick, Rob, Kev Tully, Kev Johnson and a great gent named Dave Carline all gather for suds and photos. Kev J. presents me with another extraordinary gift — an Everton leather sport bag filled with awesome swag, much of it Sheedy-related, plus a tracksuit. He even somehow found a program from that '85 FA Cup tie. Can't imagine the thought, time and expense that must have gone into assembling that package. Amazing. And then Pete walks in with a yellow Marine jersey for me. Since the club shop was out, he just rang up the team owner.
Baines and Gaynes
Turns out Keith has also been doing a little secret operating this past week… he contacted the club and got my photo and a TW welcome into the game program and onto the scoreboard display. At halftime the PA announcer is reading birthday congratulations and such… then suddenly he's talking about me and my first trip to Goodison. Keith is pointing at me and the fans in the vicinity are applauding. Too much, man, too much.
You'll notice I have skipped over the first half of the game completely. So did the team. The second half awakens when Jags forces a rebound over the line and does an actual cartwheel down the end line, but shortly thereafter Joel has the brain fart and the pen makes it 1-1. Nothing to fear, however, because Barks then pinballs a shot off two defenders for the lead, and then Rom pulls a 5G fighter-plane turn that leaves our future (?) CB Keane screwed into the ground. 3-1. So I've seen two 2-goal victories in a row. Thanks, boys.
Keith's last surprise is another postgame trip onto the Goodison turf with the rest of the posse, and we get photos with Baines and young Tom and visit for a few minutes outside with Duncan McKenzie, who it turns out was my close neighbour 35 years ago in Northbrook, Illinois near Chicago.
Another fantastic, incredible day at Goodison. How lucky can a guy get in one trip?
The view of Keith and me in the Park End from his seat
Planes, trains and automobiles back in the other direction. Texts from the lads wishing me a safe trip home and inviting me back. They actually seem to mean it. Who would have thought?
What Keith had the club put on the message board and what Kev texted me later keeps coming back to me… “Once Everton touches you….”
I wasn't just touched by Everton. I was enveloped in an affectionate bear hug. What kind of people would serve up such warmth and consideration to a stranger from way out of town? Everton people. Slogans like The People's Club, family and community are easy to recite, but my four hosts and literally everyone else I met on this Blue Odyssey lived it and breathed it, and went out of their way to share it with this pilgrim. Every thoughtful gesture, every laugh, every handshake and hug reminded me how incredibly fortunate I am to be an Evertonian.
So to Peter, Keith and his wife Chris, Rob, Kev J, Patrick, Kev T, David, Dave, Mike from Pittsburgh, Joe the Blue Taxi Driver, Bainesy, Row EE and everyone else inside the club and out who made this trip so special for me… thank you from the bottom of my heart. Whatever the future holds, please know that I will cherish your generosity forever.
The Winslow gang.
L-R: Mike Gaynes, Dave Tarline (rear), Kevin Tully, Rob Halligan, Keith Harrison, Patrick Murphy, Kev Johnson
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