As with all great houses of football, the bleachers of TD Place Stadium are a second home for many devout supporters in Ottawa.
The Bytown Boys, a supporters’ group who followed both the Ottaway Fury and the short-lived CSL side Capital City FC right to the bitter end (and who will now, of course, back CPL newcomers Atlético Ottawa), have been a fixture at Lansdowne Park since 2011.
Key among them has been Stephane Brisson-Merrick, one of the group’s leaders (the “Sergeant-at-arms,” in his words — in charge of equipment and gameday setup), for whom the band of fellow supporters has become like family.
Brisson-Merrick’s infatuation with the beautiful game dates back more than 20 years (to September 7, 1997, to be exact), with what he calls “a weird story.” A youngster living in Jamaica at the time, he went to see the Canadian men’s national team play in World Cup qualifying in Kingston. Canada fell 1-0 to Jamaica, en route to their last-place finish in “the Hex,” but that didn’t shake Brisson-Merrick’s fascination.
Fast forward to 2010, and Brisson-Merrick — now returned to his native Canada — is once again enamoured with soccer in the wake of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa. The next year, Capital City FC began play, with the Bytown Boys popping up to back them. When Capital City closed up shop after one season, the supporters turned their attention to the Fury, following them through the PDL, NASL, and finally USL (as well as their women’s team’s stint in the W-League), right up until the club shut down in late 2019.
When, for the second time in their group’s history, they found themselves without a club in November, the Bytown Boys took rumours of imminent CPL expansion with a grain of salt.
“I was still planning the group’s AGM without a (CPL) team in Ottawa. I’m kind of the most pessimistic person in the group,” Brisson-Merrick told CanPL.ca.
“When the fold (of the Fury) happened, people were upset, annoyed, but a few of us saw it as the way of the sports world, unfortunately. They have certain rules you have to follow, and if you don’t follow them, well, you don’t get to play in the sandbox.”
Brisson-Merrick admitted that the Bytown Boys were fairly divided over the Fury’s initial choice to forego entering the CPL in favour of staying in USL, with opinionated voices in favour of either side — plus a healthy faction who, he said, just wanted a team to support, regardless of league.
Now, he’s hoping that everyone can reconcile their differences with the advent of a stable CPL club.
“There’s some bridges to be mended for sure,” he conceded. “I know most of us in the group, we wanted to see CPL, but we’re also like, ‘Well, this is what we have, either use it or lose it.’ The mentality was, if (the Ottawa Fury) goes, who’s going to come in? Is that a good sign, saying, ‘Ottawa’s lost a team, so are they a good sports market to have?’
“So we were being a bit more pragmatic about the situation.”
Ultimately, he’s confident the strength of their community will win out. Brisson-Merrick and his fellow supporters have no shortage of tales of camaraderie within the group, both in the stands and away from TD Place.
“One of my best friends Nicole met her husband in our supporters’ section,” he recounted. “They’ve been married for three years going on four, and they have a two-year-old girl now.”
“We always treat each other like they’re family,” he continued. “When my father passed away a couple years ago, at his funeral a bunch of the supporters showed up. And in the church, if you looked around you had the family side, and then you had the supporters and friends.”
Indeed, the group honoured Brisson-Merrick’s father in 2018 by naming their fan-voted player of the year award after him. The Terry Merrick Memorial Trophy, as it’s now called, will continue to be awarded to their chosen MVP from the new Ottawa CPL club every year.
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Such heartwarming anecdotes should be ample evidence that the Bytown Boys are more than a supporters’ group for a football club.
“My number one goal has always been treating everyone like Norm from Cheers,” Brisson-Merrick said. “So, when they show up in our section, everybody knows the guy, always welcome, off we go.”
He added: “If you’re not enjoying yourself, there’s no point in you going the full 90, because you’re just going to hate it and it’s gonna feel like going to work.”
The community focus is a pillar of the supporter culture in Ottawa, both in the stands of TD Place and out in the wider world. They have yearly charity fundraisers for local food banks, and they’re always open to newcomers.
“We try to give back as well, we’re not just for us,” Brisson-Merrick said. “We believe football’s for everybody, so as long as you’re a decent person and you want to cheer on the team, the door is open.”
When the 2020 CPL season kicks off, Brisson-Merrick and the Bytown Boys won’t have missed a beat.