Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Amid the storms, our very own feel-good story

Wee-ride: Ric Wee made the most of the card he was dealt, with a little help from his friends
Last week the unthinkable happened. Not one but two Premier League matches were postponed. With state-of-the art pitches, under soil heating, floodlights etc, etc, it is vary rare to see games in the top flight called off. Indeed, Goodison’s last game to fall to the elements was against Leeds over 13 years ago.

So when Ric Wee travelled 7,000 miles from Malaysia to see his beloved Blues play, the last thing he’d have feared was the Palace game being postponed owing to falling debris outside the ground caused by high winds.

Thanks to the quick thinking of Helen Mayo and various others behind the scenes at the club, Wee’s trip was not a wasted one, and he was afforded free reign of Goodison’s corridors and enjoyed a laugh and a joke with Leighton Baines and Roberto Martinez.

Wee’s story made national news, as the footballing community warmed to his predicament. Such bad luck, such misfortune. Coral have offered him free tickets the next time he’s over and his Twitter followers have risen to over 8,500.

While Wee became a mini celebrity overnight thanks to the power of social media, he was inadvertently putting overseas blues fans - and overseas football fans in general - on the map.

The domestic fans are the bread and butter. We travel week in, week out; spending our hard-earned money to watch our idols. But there are millions of fans across the globe who, despite the gulf in distance, are as fanatical and as passionate as us.

While in South East Asia last year I had the pleasure of meeting up with the Singapore Everton Supporters Club. Despite enduring a torrid game which saw us dumped out of the FA Cup to Wigan, the occasion was slightly soothed by sharing anecdotes into the early hours with a group of die-hard Evertonians I never knew existed 90 minutes earlier.

Their knowledge, enthusiasm, passion and love for the club would not have looked out of place in the pubs around Goodison.

But how does someone so far away from the UK end up dedicating so much time, money and emotional energy towards a club they have never seen in the flesh?

In the wake of our Malaysian friend’s experience last Wednesday, I made contact again with Jiing Yih Ong, a member of the fan club, and asked him why he follows the Blues.

“It was during one of my lowest ebbs in 2004, when I saw Everton struggling,” he told me.

“(This was) no way for a club with such heritage, grandeur and great fans – it immediately presented to me a team whose stature befits an always big club.

“A club who I could identify with, the decision to follow and support was simply a no-brainer.”

And so began a ten-year love affair that, in truth, is a mere drop in the ocean of millions of fans across the globe who dedicate themselves to following a club. We brave the elements, the delayed trains; they fight against their body clocks and dodgy internet streamings.

Across all sports, to have that release at the end of a trying and testing week is sacrosanct. With a win, the euphoria makes it all worthwhile. You wake up the following morning with a spring in your step and pore over the morning match reports. When you draw – currently too frequently in Everton's case – you shrug and get on with things. A loss? Well, you forget the papers exist.

But for thousands of overseas fans around the world, they don’t get the chance to walk away from the ground win, lose or draw – and yet still feel all of the above.

Jiing Yih for one is yet to enjoy the stadium experience.

“No excuses, but there are seemingly legitimate reasons why I'm yet to get to Goodison: namely family and finances,” he reasons.

“However the firm belief is that the first trip of many would signal a positive turning point in my humble life as a Blue.”

Jiing Yih’s predicament is understandable. Unless you’re earning the mega bucks of Singapore’s thriving financial centre in Marina Bay, it would be a massive ask to afford a return trip to watch your club.

But the reality is that, just as our pitches have been invaded by foreigners since the mid 90s, so too have Premier League clubs’ fanbases. Those with shorter flights do regularly make the pilgrimage (cue Scandinavian red-noses jokes).

I’m not privy to Wee’s financial situation. But I’m assuming the return flights for himself and his family, plus tickets in the Joe Mercer Suite, would have set him back a fair bit.

Finances aside, it is the human element of the story which has truly resonated, and struck a chord both domestically and back in Wee’s South East Asia.

Jiing Yih added: “It’s a shining and magnificent example of how the fans can be and are taken care of even in exceptional circumstances.

“The Club is humble yet full of camaraderie, kindred spirit, kindness and feels homely.”

All traits that brought Everton to the attention of Jiing Yih and helps sum up why the institution is known as the People's club. A club for the people.

No comments: