You can join a supporters club from anywhere in the world – but running one is a different story.
Words: Mark Jirobe | @VillaMarkPGH
It never fails.
The alarm clock sounds off at some ungodly hour on a matchday.
For some, this kind of interrupted sleep is greeted with disdain or unpleasant reactions. For those who are die-hard supporters of Aston Villa from outside the United Kingdom – and chairmen of their respective Lions Clubs (a term coined for Aston Villa supporters clubs) – the clanging sounds of an alarm mean it’s time to be joyful. It’s time to get a move on, don the claret and blue and head to the pub. No matter the time.
It’s no secret that Aston Villa’s reach is far and wide. Maybe not to the tune of recent behemoths of the Premier League, but no matter where you are in the world, you’re never very far away from someone who loves the club. Lions Clubs are springing to life all over the world, and namely, in North America.
From Atlanta to San Francisco, Toronto to Houston, Winnipeg to Chicago, if you love Aston Villa and find yourself in North America, there are clubs available to join and watch games with.
If you’d like to see if there’s a Lions Club active near you, you can search here.
Fletcher Boyd, who is chairman of the newly minted Atlanta Lions, says that “being away from Villa Park makes for a unique and special bond to the football club,”
“Lots of early morning and coffee and kick-off, but the matchday meetings are an absolute blast.”
“To feel the excitement of a Premier League match at 10:00 a.m., there’s nothing quite like it – being in a pub with potentially hundreds of supporters spanning across a wide range of clubs, nationalities and backgrounds, huddling around TV monitors to enjoy the beautiful game is truly special”
“I feel at our pub, the Brewhouse Cafe, it’s like stepping into a pub in Manchester, London or even Birmingham – we run into friends from all over the United Kingdom, including the black country, making that connection to B6 even more special.”
It’s that feeling that makes Lions Clubs so unique and appreciated by American Villans or English ex-patriots who have relocated. It takes a special kind of person to wake up in the early morning hours, especially if you are on the West Coast or in Canada.
Rick Leong, Lions Club Chairman in California states that “running a Lions Club on the West Coast has a few challenges – with the greatest being the early match times – ranging from 04:30 a.m. to 07:00 a.m. on some occasions”
“We recently just hosted the annual North American meet-up, and plan an annual Golden State meet up between San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego clubs”
“My main goal as a chairman is to make sure our membership also feels the ‘family’ connection with the club in Birmingham – so I spend a lot of time communicating and sharing information from the club to members – it is almost constant.”
Being a part of a Lions Club is much, much more than just gathering with friends to tip back a pint, scream at televisions and show face.
Once you’ve pulled back the curtain and had a look behind the foreground, there is much to do to spread the good word of Aston Villa.
Britanny Klein, a chairwoman in Winnipeg, knows all about persevering through testing moments.
“Running a Lions Club can be a lot of work and take a lot of time”
“As a chairperson, you are responsible for reaching out to members, maintaining social media accounts, designing logos, crests and flags, organising events, developing and maintaining a relationship with establishments, creating and funding merchandise of all kinds and more”
“In a smaller supporter club like ours, I am the sole person responsible for the duties of maintaining the club.”
Brett Bates, chairman in Toronto (where the annual meet-up is happening in 2020), echoes the sentiments of Britanny by adding that it is “a lot of work” and “more than he expected” when he initially took over as chairman.
“However, it isn’t work when it’s something I love doing,” Brett hastens to add, “Getting as many Aston Villa fans together hand having other Villa fans to watch games with is all I need to push me on.”
Through all the planning and anxiety, the end result always seems to make the journey worth the time and energy spent.
Simon Leach, the chairman for the Chicago Lions Club, knows all about the potential of growth when it comes to the clubs in North America.
“We have grown significantly over the years, not just in terms of numbers who live in Chicago, but also the amount of people worldwide who are aware of our group and make a special effort to join us if they’re visiting Chicago”
“It certainly helps to reduce the ‘separation anxiety’ on match days knowing you’ll have other like-minded people to celebrate or commiserate with”
“My club almost runs itself now thanks to the fact that we are so well known, but there are still other little things like producing t-shirts, scarfs, badges, magnets, shot glasses and other giveaways that take a certain amount of time to design and produce.”
Spending time with each other over the course of many seasons produces some funny, albeit very serious superstitions and traditions. In Pittsburgh, their die-hard members drink Fullers London Pride on matchdays. In Toronto, they take a half-time picture with all attending members that day and imbibe with mimosas after the game.
But in Chicago… it’s all about the Malört.
“The most notorious tradition we have in Chicago is the synchronised downing of a shot of Malört when we win (and often times when we draw or lose),” says Simon Leach.
“If you want to know what it is, don’t ask – if you want to know how it tastes, Ian Taylor will tell you!”
“It’s your round, Malört, it’s your round!”
The camaraderie on display is hard to ignore when it comes to the droves of loud, passionate Aston Villa supporters. And through the camaraderie, comes some very memorable Aston Villa moments.
Ross Goldman, Lions Club chairman in Boston, looks back on the John McGinn goal at Wembley that ensured Aston Villa’s return to the Premier League last season.
“My favourite moment when we’ve got together and I have met Villans from different places? It has to be when Hourihane scored against Blackburn during the 2018 North American meet-up in New York, or the Play-Off Final when McGinn scored.”
Fletcher Boyd has a number of his own cool moments to look back upon in Atlanta, too.
“My favourite moment by far since becoming a chairman was actually right before we were officially recognised. It was the Play-Off Final against Derby”
“We had almost twenty supporters in the pub – the most we’ve ever had – and got to enjoy one of the happiest days in recent memory with some amazing individuals”
“Unbeknownst to us at the start of the game, we had not one, but two MLS announcers in our pub watching the final – Kevin Egan from Atlanta United and Callum Williams from Minnesota United, who are both massive Villa supporters themselves”
“To have the chance to speak to them, pick their brains on football and have a chat about Villa as a brand new chairman was super cool – and we eve had a lad all the way from Los Angeles who came in to celebrate the victory with us as well.”
The memorable moments for the chairpeople of the clubs don’t just end watching Aston Villa on the television.
Britanny Klein and her partner went to Villa Park to watch the first home game of the season against Bournemouth this season.
“My partner and I had met up with the Kidderminster Lions before going to the Holte Pub to meet up with a friend from the Toronto Lions”
“We walked up to the pub and told the gentleman at the gate that we were with the Kidderminster Lions, and he responded that he ‘didn’t think we were because we have our own club now'”
“I was amazed that he knew who I was without having ever met me previously – but more importantly, this was the moment that it sunk in that Winnipeg was finally on the map of the Villa world – that there was an officially linked group connected to the club which holds a very special place in my heart, right in my own city.”
Some people may think that this kind of support from so far away may be a little odd, but you just can’t fault the passion for Aston Villa within these supporter’s clubs. David Bradley once said that ‘they say that you don’t choose Aston Villa, it chooses you’ and that ‘being a part of the claret and blue family is like being a part of my family‘.
Some of us took that quote to heart. Myself included.
The quote rings true when it comes to supporters at home and abroad, but especially about the tight-knit community within North America’s Lions Clubs.
Between raising money for Acorns Children’s Hospice, the annual meet-ups, the sense of camaraderie – being a chairman myself for Pittsburgh is something that I am very proud of and love being a part of.
No matter how far we are away from Villa Park, our support never wavers.