In the three or so months since that time, the entire game of football and the world as a whole around us has changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We recently had a chance to catch up again with Tony to talk about what the Forum has been up to in these difficult days.
For those who had missed that article and are unaware of what the Fans’s Forum does, it is an initiative set up to bring the fans closer to the Club by providing honest and candid feedback on a host of issues and topics that are important to supporters. Everton Football Club currently has thousands of fans worldwide, connected to by a network of over 50 Supporters’ Clubs.
RBM: In the couple of months since we last spoke you have now become one the Fans’ Forum’s first international members. Hearty congratulations on that Tony, we’re very excited for you and what you bring to the Forum. How were your first (and any subsequent) meetings?
TS: Thank you! I was delighted to get voted in and it’s a genuine honour to be trusted by fellow Evertonians to represent their views.
I was really pleased to be in Liverpool for the Everton vs Manchester United match back in March, which coincided with the first FF meeting since I was elected. It was exciting to meet the other new and existing members, and the fan engagement team at Everton. It’s a big responsibility to be representing the views of fans from across the world, so I was glad to finally meet in person my colleague Joe O’Reilly, who was elected at the same time as I, and will continue the brilliant work he already does as Chair of the Irish Toffees as well as supporting Fans Groups across Europe.
At that first meeting Joe and I were pleased to be able to share some of the feedback that we received during the election process about some of the issues facing fans abroad; and to get the agreement of the Forum to initiate a consultation with global blues - an important first step to understanding where we need to focus our efforts in the future.
Getting the international fans more interaction with the Club has been a priority for you. What do you have in the works towards that goal?
As well as the main Fans’ Forum which meets every month, we have created an International Project Group which I lead, and focuses on the unique challenges of supporting the Blues from further away.
This is important because the needs of overseas fans are different to those who may live in the city or can more easily travel to Goodison Park over the course of a weekend.
There are 4 of us in the International Project Group (Joe, Robert Eagleton, Jazz Bal & I) and our first priority has been to set some clear goals for the group:
- How we can best engage with supporters groups across the globe
- Understanding in better detail what Blues want from us, and the issues that matter most to them
- The best ways to keep in touch with them and how they can more easily feed in their views by setting up a clear and regular route for communicating with them
We have also decided that fans need to know who they can come to with any issues that they want to raise. There are over 50 overseas supporters’ groups, which is a lot and so we have split responsibilities: Joe is the main contact for groups based in Europe, and I will be the contact looking after North America and the rest of the world. It has been great to already hear from places such as Singapore, Japan, Australia and South Africa.
Other work has focused on launching a consultation for International Fans - open now until 20th May. This is the first time that the Forum has sought the direct views of fans abroad and will help us prioritise what is most important to them, and will focus the Group’s work. It will also help us understand how overseas fans want to be involved and kept informed of Club issues. I see a key part of our role being to listen, as well as engage with fans, so this is an important step.
In the last couple of months, the COVID-19 pandemic has really taken a hold of the world as a whole. How (if at all) has this changed how the Fan Forum is operating and their activities?
It’s hard to comprehend the changes that we have all had to absorb over the last month or two and businesses, schools and communities have all had to make radical changes to how they work. Many members of the FF are working in frontline services, and are extremely busy supporting the public service response across Liverpool - as so many people are.
The adjustments that the FF have had to make, seem quite trivial in some respects, but of course there are things that we can and should continue to do. We have been using the same technologies that others are using - including zoom meetings, phone calls co-ordinated across different time zones and e-mail. This has meant that we have been able to keep progressing our core work. I am hoping that we can safely start meeting face to face again, once the travel restrictions are relaxed. But obviously the priority is ensuring that we all get through the situation in good health and doing what we need to do to adhere to expert advice.
Of course all sporting activities have ceased, and there remains no definitive timeline for a return for football. Everton meanwhile are trying to continue engagement using social media to good effect with videos and phone calls. What else does the club have planned?
The Club’s Blue Family campaign has done a range of things to help keep the fanbase engaged, based around its ‘Blue Family’ campaign.
Joe and I have been working to extend that campaign to fans outside of the UK through identifying individuals that have either been impacted directly by the pandemic, or who are working as first responders during the crisis and who might welcome a call from current and former Everton players and ambassadors. We have taken this as a signal from the Club that they are serious about engaging with the wider fanbase, and it gives us a good basis for further action.
It has been great to see how Evertonians have also been connecting and supporting each other through the crisis. I never cease to be amazed how much Blues rally around and look out for each other. I have seen fans going above and beyond to support their communities - from raising money to support small business that have had to change how they are operating because people can no longer attend matches at pubs and bars; families creating quizzes and workbooks for kids now stuck at home for weeks; and Evertonians sending messages, cards and gifts for kids who are celebrating birthdays in isolation.
Joe has done a series of interviews with former players and has also found a new vocation in life - as the regular host of ‘The Lockdown Quiz’ which he runs through Facebook and which connects people from all over the place.
These are uncertain times for all, and every day we read stories about deaths and layoffs in the Blue family. There is also a sense of ‘charity apathy’ building up with people’s own livelihoods affected while they’re being asked to donate. Is there a message that the Club and the Fans Forum can/should send to everyone?
It’s been terrible to see the scale of the impact this pandemic has had on so many individuals and families. It’s important for people to stick together and to feel supported through difficult times. Evertonians around the world have shown that that’s what we are all about, and it’s another reason why we are the best fans in the world.
Of course, there’s much more important things at stake than football at the moment.
I hope that some of the work we’re doing now in the Forum, however, lays some strong foundations for how we can work with overseas Blues and help give these devoted followers of our Club the voice they want and deserve.
The Forum has launched a new consultation to gather the views of Evertonians living outside the UK. Between 30 April and 20 May, international Blues are invited to tell the Everton Fans’ Forum about the areas of the Club that matter most to them most and give their views on feedback mechanisms and how they prefer to be kept informed of key developments.
For Evertonians who want to learn more about the work of the Fans’ Forum or the current consultation and who are based in Europe, they can contact Joe O’Reilly at email@example.com and Blues in North America and the rest of the world should contact Tony Sampson at tony.sampson@evertonfansforum
Thank you Tony for your time, and we look forward to continuing to interact with the Fans’ Forum as one big Blue Family.
_*Editor's Note*: A couple of errors have been corrected since the original publishing of this article_