Everton Salone kicks off

As Ronald Koeman puts the final pieces of his Everton jigsaw in place, 3,000 miles away a very different Everton squad has taken shape.

After four weeks of trials, 33 young men have been selected to be the first to wear the royal blue of Everton Sierra Leone.

The project – inspired by but independent from the Goodison Park club – has a social purpose to unite the community through a mutual love of the beautiful game.

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It’s the brainchild of community health advocate and citizen journalist Amjata Bayoh, who grew up in the Brookfields district of the capital, Freetown – in the shadow of the West African country’s national stadium.

“I have loved Everton since I was a boy and I’m really proud to see our club here take shape,” says Amjata, who’s been hooked since he started watching Mikel Arteta and Tim Cahill a decade ago.

More than 70 players took part in the trials and Amjata says it’s just the first step in a process he hopes will one day see Everton top the table – both in England and Sierra Leone.

His vision is of a club both providing youths with something to rally around and encouraging them to improve their education as the nation recovers from the Ebola crisis.

Some 8,704 people in Sierra Leone were diagnosed with the deadly illness, with more than 5,000 more suspected of having caught the virus. At least 3,589 of them died.

And the after-effects are still being felt, with young people catching up on studies missed when schools shut. Many of them also had their education disrupted by the country’s 11-year civil war, which ended in 2002.IMG_3466

But the business of setting up such a project isn’t plain sailing in a country that’s ranked the world’s eighth most deprived by the United Nations. Getting hold of kit is tricky enough for a start.

English football is huge in Sierra Leone but the only replica kits available to most people are either second-hand or poor-quality counterfeits.

And while there’s a steady flow of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and even Liverpool kits into the country, Everton jerseys have proven harder to come by.

“I had to ask a cousin in neighbouring Guinea to source some from a dealer,” says Amjata, who then arranged for the Sierra Leone flag to be stitched onto the shirts.

Amjata is too young to remember Dave Watson lifting the FA Cup at Wembley in 1995. The trophyless years since then haven’t been easy for a rare Toffee in a land where the banter is every bit as fierce as the UK.

“It’s hard to be an Evertonian in Freetown,” he explains. “To make life easier, I used to pretend I supported Arsenal while secretly folloing Everton. But one day I decided that I was old and strong enough to follow my heart and declare my true love.

“Since I made this decision I read more about Everton’s history and became more connected with the Everton culture.”

Now on matchdays he’ll be found watching the Blues from the back row of his local Black Sugar cinema, arguing over the relative merits of his Goodison hero Leighton Baines and the opposition’s right-winger.

These “cinemas” – usually clubs with rows of fold-out chairs – are Sierra Leone’s soccer hotbeds. Dozens of supporters cram in to watch on several large flatscreen TVs, often with different games on each.

But during 2014, with West Africa still in the grip of the Ebola epidemic, public gatherings were banned under measures aimed at preventing its spread.

Amjata wrote for the Huffington Post at the time: “After months of living through the crisis, I just want to get back to normal life. For me, my worst nightmare is when Everton are playing and I am not able to watch.”

Since the country was declared Ebola-free in November last year, the cinemas have been back open for business.

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And while Amjata is looking forward to following the Ronald Koeman revolution on the small screen, he hopes his community will be enjoying live action when his own royal blue army finally gets on the march.

Getting the side officially recognised, he knows, will not be straightforward. Sierra Leone’s football league is currently unrecognised by the government. Officialdom might also make the registration process less than straightforward.

But Amjata hopes to see the team playing in the second tier of national football before too long.

There has been plenty of community backing so far, with donations enabling the club to buy equipment including balls, cones and jerseys.

“The main beneficiaries will be the players,” says Amjata. “But I want everyone in the community, especially the youths, to have a role to play. This can help reduce the growing number of youth gangs which is one of the main concerns in our community.

“The goal is taking this team to the Sierra Leonean National League and seeing players from this club representing their country, becoming the next [Sierra Leonean legend] Mohamed Kallon, Samuel Eto’o or Didier Drogba.”

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With this in mind, the club has added 10 teenage youth players to its senior squad.
The side played its first match at the weekend, on the muddy dirt practice pitch front of the national stadium, and ran out 4-1 winners against a community XI featuring several former league players.

A philosophy that study comes first means there will be a pause to allow players – mostly aged 16 to 23 – to revise for exams.

Assistant coach Sulaiman Wahid Kemokai is in the same boat. Aged 22, he’s still studying for his high school tests, having lost two years of schooling to both Ebola and the war.

“We have really talented players,” he says, as he watches play from the sidelines. “They have the skills and technique but they are still raw and need to develop their knowhow to perform at a higher level.”

So, as one of those charged with taking them to the top, is he a true blue Evertonian?

“I’m a Liverpool fan,” he confesses, with a guilty laugh and glance to see whether Amjata has heard.

However, as one of the project’s financial backers, banker and community “elder” Lawrence Logan, 28, explains: “We are all Evertonians now. When Everton are on TV here, we are all watching them.”

He’s hoping for a time when one of his team’s players makes the journey to England to turn out for the Everton of Merseyside.

One day, perhaps, the side will visit Goodison Park to take on the Blues in a friendly, in the way Chilean side Everton de Vina del Mar did in 2010.

But for now, the players will be grateful for the chance to wear the royal blue that would have seemed impossible just a year or two ago.

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