Tony's journey began at Christmas - Tom Mallows
Every great tale has to have a beginning and a cold, dark winter’s day in northern England is where Tony Hibbeart begins his.
For the tiny, Everton supporting bear will soon set off across the globe, learning about people from a myriad backgrounds, but who all have one thing in common – Everton Football Club.
Though I currently live in Leeds, approximately an hour and a half from the city of Liverpool, I did grow up in the north west of England, not far from Goodison (though as fellow RBM Darren Melling will no doubt remind me, my home town of Ormskirk is in rural Lancashire - who are commonly known as ‘woolybacks’ to scousers!)
It was my grandparents who originally spread the good word of Everton. Born and raised in Liverpool they were both huge Evertonians and made sure that was passed down onto their children.
Given I was the youngest in the extended family at the time, Everton had cascaded down from aunties, to uncles, to cousins and siblings, meaning I had little choice but to be an Evertonian – in fact I don’t consciously remember choosing to support them, I just did!
My first game was the 31st August 1993, a 1-0 defeat at home to Aston Villa (Guy Whittingham the scorer if you were interested). Like with most things, you always remember your first time and my first journey up the steps and into the famous old ground was sending me into a world I would never leave.
However, we seemed to lose most games I went to that season, including a 3-2 defeat in extra time to then First Division (now Championship) Bolton in the FA Cup third round – my first ever game in the lower Gwladys Street. It was that game that really got me hooked. I could barely see a thing, especially when everyone stood up, but the atmosphere, the noise, the random hugging of strangers when we scored, I couldn’t get enough of it.
Or could I?
The innocence of youth led me to believe that I was a jinx that season (though now I realise that Everton were just dire and lost most of their games regardless of whether I went or not) so I passed up the opportunity to go to the Wimbledon game on the final day of the 1993-94 season, where Everton came from 2-0 down to win 3-2 and stay up by the skin of their teeth.
Given Goodison was easily accessible by train I regularly went to games from then on and got my first season ticket in 1995. In school Evertonians were always outnumbered by Liverpudlians – though the vast majority of those were glory-hunting types who only perked up when they were winning. The Blues, although smaller in number, knew they were the ones who had made the harder choice, but that it was ultimately the better one.
As I began to get older I started going to some away games, taking me from Newcastle to Southampton, via Bristol, Wolverhampton and Crystal Palace. Nothing can beat the awaydays, early starts on the train, pubs in random towns, outsinging the home fans. It is just a shame that more often or not the actual football was a let down!
My worst ever away game (and there are several) would have to be a 5-0 thrashing by Manchester City in December 2000 A police escort from the train station meant I arrived after kick-off and was sat in uncovered temporary seating at City’s old Maine Road ground in the pouring rain. We fell behind soon after and were 5-0 down by about the hour mark, meaning I quickly left to safely negotiate my way home.
My favourite matches all tend to involve wins over Liverpool, especially the first ever derby I attended, when Duncan Ferguson scored his first goal for Everton in a 2-0 win in November 1994. Kevin Campbell’s 1-0 victory at Anfield is also a standout memory, especially as we haven’t won there since. While most recently the FA Cup semi-final win over Manchester United was a special day, I’ll never forget the moment Jags slotted home the spot kick and then Z-Cars boomed around the stadium – hairs on the back of the neck-type stuff.
Financial and work pressures meant I had to give up my season ticket in 2010. And although the nature of my work as a freelance sports journalist means I can no longer get to Goodison as often as I could, my job does mean I often write about the Toffees – my work and hobby dovetailing very nicely indeed.
Saturday afternoons are often spent in the office with Everton’s match on TV, even if I am often meant to be writing about something else (ssshhh, keep that quiet!).
The Yorkshire town of Leeds had been my home on and off for the past ten years, taking in two spells at University and now my current place off work. I took Tony out for a quick walk around the city centre as well as watching Everton's win at Newcastle back home at my flat.
Next on his itinerary will be a trip to his spiritual home of Merseyside, before jetting off on the journey of a lifetime. You can keep up with Tony’s journey and all the people he encounters right here at Royal Blue Mersey. But if you want to join in yourself, meet Tony and tell us your Everton story, then email Sean – the brains behind the operation – at firstname.lastname@example.org