BIRMINGHAM, England — Manchester United swing from strength to strength. Chelsea and Manchester City have the money to bring in marquee signings. Arsenal are classy and almost have a bit of an underdog feel about them. Liverpool have history. Southampton are suddenly the plucky side, Tottenham give you hope but allow you to say you’re not rooting for a certain winner, and Everton have a fun nickname. So if you’re in the United States and looking for a Premier League side to support, why on earth would you choose little Aston Villa?
When I visited Birmingham earlier in the week, the first question asked, upon finding out that I was an American Villa supporter, was, “Why?” Had my dad passed on his love of the Villa? Did I choose the club because owner Randy Lerner is an American? Was my boyfriend an Aston Villa fan?
No, no, and no. My dad imparted in me a love of baseball, my boyfriend at the time didn’t know how soccer worked, and I’d never heard of Randy Lerner. No, my criteria for choosing a Premier League club was this: I didn’t want one of the top four clubs, and I didn’t want a team set to slide into the Championship (mostly due to the difficulty in following such a club from across the Atlantic). I thought “Aston Villa” sounded like a lovely name, the claret-and-blue colors were awfully pretty, and no one I knew seemed to hate the team.
Those reasons seem awfully flimsy now and so, on a recent trip to Birmingham, I asked local Villa fans why an American should throw their support behind the team. Some of the answers were surprising. Some were…not.
A Storied Club
As the pub near Birmingham’s New Street continued to fill up with more Aston Villa fans, I sat down with four who’d managed to claim a table. After explaining my mission, to find out why fans in the U.S. should choose Villa as their club, Yasmin gave me a quick, succinct answer: “We’ve got history.” The others nodded their agreement.
Let’s clear something up straight out of the gate: Aston Villa aren’t “little.” History — and history counts for a lot in English football — dictates that the Villa be called a “big club,” and for fans of the sport to fret if it appears they may be relegated. Aston Villa director William McGregor led 12 clubs in establishing the Football League in 1888, and since that time, Villa have spent 107 of 125 seasons in the top flight. Only Everton has a better record. They’ve captured the top domestic title seven times and lifted the FA Cup seven times as well.
But what Villa supporters really love to mention is 1982. Yes, it was over 20 years ago, but lifting the European Cup is still a huge deal — particularly when only four other English clubs have done so. And it’s not so much about the quality of the game. Almost every Villa fan can tell you that an inexperienced goalkeeper performed superbly and that Peter Withe converted Tony Morely’s cross for the only goal to beat Bayern Munich. But that’s not what matters. If you want a club that is a true winner, you need to choose Aston Villa.
And if that’s not enough, Villa even have it embroidered in their shirts: “Proud History. Bright Future.”
Aston Villa’s American goalkeeper was the quickest answer that came to most peoples’ mind in response to my question. James, a Villa fan who’s also a journalist and is so used to giving articulate responses, stated, “Guzan. Guzan is the number one reason.” James went on to explain that, although Tim Howard might be the current #1 for the USMNT, it’s really Brad Guzan who should start in goal for Brazil 2014. The Villa keeper was a saving (literally, with 116) grace for Villa last season and wound up scooping both the Supporters’ Player of the Year and the Players’ Player of the Year awards. Guzan remains immense in goal this year, having started each Premier League game and kept four clean sheets thus far, after achieving just five last season.
I was lucky enough to hang out with the Kidderminster Lions, a supporters group from a town about 20 miles outside Birmingham, for a couple hours prior to the match against West Bromwich Albion. The Kiddy Lions are a boisterous bunch who love away days, but they also love the chance to take a newcomer under their wing — there’s no exclusion in these Villa supporters groups. At least two of their members, Ben and Paul, took a trip to the States in summer 2012 to watch their beloved Villa on a preseason tour. As both are fans of American sport, and became Washington Huskies fans thanks to their interaction with Chris, a Villa supporter in Washington who helped make their stay in the U.S. a fantastic one, I decided they’d be perfect people to ask about why Americans should become Aston Villa fans.
Ben’s answer surprised me. “The amount of Americans that support Villa already is unreal,” he said, and went on to describe the number of die-hard fans he’d encountered in his time in Chicago, for the Villa match against the Fire. Ben said he’d thought the crowd for the friendly would mostly consist of ex-pats, along with some Fire fans. Instead, Villa fans came from across the country, with supporters’ groups from New York, Philadelphia (who had their own friendly to attend) and Washington, DC all joining Chicago, which itself has a large and active group, to cheer on their club.
But even if you live on the West Coast, that’s no reason not to adopt Aston Villa as your club. California has a network of supporters clubs with various meeting locations throughout the state. The aforementioned Chris has established a relatively new club in Seattle to help promote the Villa in a city that loves soccer. But it’s Seattle’s rivals that have had the honor of hosting Aston Villa, with the Timbers playing a friendly against them that same summer. As Neil , founder of the Aston Villa Former Players Association, pointed out to me, Portland has quite a few connections with the Villa. Neil Rioch himself played for the Timbers from 1975-1976, and noted that there are still many with links to both Villa and the Timbers that are still living in Portland. In fact, he and Peter Brennan, editor of the Villa Times magazine, are both keen to bring the Aston Villa All-Stars to play in the city, and perhaps visit a few other places around the country.
Bromsgrove Lions, too, were all set to take care of a fan heading to her first derby match. After hearing about the wonder of supporters groups from the Kiddy Lions, Phil, the chairman, and Duncan, secretary for the Bromsgrove club, were able to fill me in on more of the details surrounding supporters’ groups. The Bromsgrove Lions started eight years ago with just 15 members, but now they’re the largest Villa supporters club in the world, with 560. These clubs are regionally based and, in addition with providing an almost instantaneous group of friends, are on hand to help members obtain tickets, sort out coach arrangements to and from games, and host special events to bring their members together.
And just in case you’re yet to be convinced that it’s possible to truly support a club while living outside the country, Andy, one of the gentlemen who kindly escorted me safely to The Hawthorns, is currently living in Berlin and heads to England for about two-thirds of the Villa matches. He meets up with the Bromsgrove Lions for away dates and, at one point, flew into London in the morning, watched Villa lose to Spurs, and flew back to Berlin that night. Sure, it’s a bit longer of a flight between Birmingham and the USA, but if Andy can make 25 games a year, you could probably get over for a couple matches every now and then.
But becoming a Villa fan is more than just joining up with a supporters group. Once you don the claret-and-blue, that’s it. You’re family now. Sometimes quite literally: on my last visit to the Midlands, I was taken in by my friend Jamie’s family, given a room and shuttled around, and became an adopted member of their clan!
As I continued on with my discussion with Ben, he made it clear that there’s a difference between fans of English football and fans of other sports. In addition to being a fan of the Huskies, Ben also follows the NFL, and has attended games both Stateside and at Wembley. While he has fun following American football and met many fans on his trip to the U.S., Ben insists the NFL doesn’t give same camaraderie. With English football, he says, once you support a club, that’s your “family for life.”
Sometimes even to the extent of separating blood relatives.
Ben was full of great stories, and my favorite was his tale of how he became a Villa supporter. You see, his family are actually fans of Wolverhampton Wanderers, yet another Midlands club. His dad took him to see Wolves play when he was six years old, and he hated it. He told his father that he didn’t like his football, and his dad said no son of his could hate the sport. So they tried an Aston Villa match. At six years old, Ben was picked up and passed from the back of the Holte End to the front, and that was it. At the end of the game, he said, “Dad, I’m Villa now.”
At the time, Ben’s dad was fine with his son’s choice, but the family may be a bit more put out these days. Now, when a Villa-Wolves game comes about (which doesn’t happen often), Ben doesn’t speak to his family for the week before, or in the week following. This was a sentiment I heard quite a bit, actually. With so many teams in such a small space, most Villa fans are likely to be friends with, work with, or even be related to Wolves, West Brom or Birmingham supporters. For the majority of the time it’s fine, but in the run-up prior to a derby, it can get intense.
But the conflicts are of little importance compared to what being a Villa fan means. Over and over again, I heard about the camaraderie amongst Villa supporters. As James explained, going to a Villa match is not simply about giving up a couple of hours to watch the game. It often can be a day long event, from the coach rides into town to time spent in the pub to singing on the metro (and yes, there was definitely singing on the way to the West Brom game).
And if you meet someone new, they’re not a stranger for long. You’ve got football in common, so, as James said, you can sit and talk for hours with no problem.
His mate Phil added, “That’s what football does though: it brings people together.”
So why become an Aston Villa fan? Perhaps the best answer is: Be sucked in by Brad Guzan’s performances. Be lured by the history. And then, you’ll find it’s too late — you’ve gained more than a club, you’ve gained a family, one you’ll never be prepared to abandon.