As an Aston Villa fan based in the United States, it's not always easy to follow the team. Fortunately in this day and age, there are a multitude of games shown on television, and streaming options are also available that were nonexistent just ten years ago. Still, there aren't a great abundance of Villans in any particular area, so watching a match with even one other soccer fan is special, regardless of what team they support.
Nothing beats watching Aston Villa with fellow supporters. Well, I lied. Watching Villa win with other fans is the best. Around 80 utterly insane, Villa-crazed lunatics rose before the sun to get to the Bluefoot Bar in San Diego for the Premier League's opening day. I watched the final game of the 2014-15 season against Burnley at this bar, but most of the people in attendence that day were Arsenal fans. This time around, it was a total AVFC takeover, although fans of other clubs were also welcome to attend, as it's one of the only pubs open so early.
Fortunately I was in the area, as my internship in California had just ended a week prior. As you can see in the photos, flags displaying the supporters groups from Kidderminster (probably the furthest), Canada, Detroit, California (Bay Area), Seattle, Chicago and Arizona all made journeys lengthier than mine.
Simon Leach, Chairman of the Chicago Lions Club is one of the fans that made the cross-country trip. I'd met Simon a few times when watching matches in Chicago. He provided me with some great background information on the event.
"We started the event 3 years ago in Chicago after a number of us had met for the first time when Villa had been over to do their tour of Philly, Chicago and Portland. A few of us thought it would be a great idea for us to have an annual event where we could all get together, enjoy some Villa banter with like minded supporters, and generally help to try and grow the support base in the US.
"The first event in Chicago drew a crowd of about 50 people. The following year we went to Thunder Bay, Ontario, where approximately 30 people gathered. Plans are already in the early stages for next year, with a core group of Lions Club Chairmen discussing a shortlist for the location for the 16/17 season opener," said Leach.
Another Chairman (and another Simon, try getting one of their attention in a crowded bar!) Simon Tissington of the San Diego chapter deserves a lot of credit for setting up the meeting.
"As Simon L said, the meetup began organically three years ago in Chicago when he posted an event for anybody to meet up at The Globe in Chicago for the first match of the season. The event blew up and a bunch of us flew in from all over the US and Canada.
"After the success of the first year and the friendships that grew from it we decided that it should become an annual event. Last season, most of us met up again in Dallas and Houston for the preseason tour, and then a smaller meetup in Thunder Bay, Canada was organised midway through the season.
"We have a good core group of supporters here in San Diego and I always felt that we could host a fantastic weekend for the event. I presented my case to the rest of the North American Lions Club Chairmen and we were off and running!
We ended up with about 80-90 Villans attending for the weekend, which was a fantastic turnout. It's always fun to get all of the familiar faces together in one spot and also to meet new fans at every event. Our "home" bar, the Bluefoot Bar, was also very involved in helping the event and were brilliant hosts.
"It was quite stressful organising everything as I really wanted to be sure that everybody in attendance had a great weekend. Once people started arriving in SD and I was able to enjoy my first pint it all went like clockwork and turned out to be an amazing weekend," said Tissington.
It was a nervy start to the match against Bournemouth, but nothing calms the nerves like a beer at 7 a.m. The first half was poor, and fortunately the Cherries couldn't capitalise on their chances. We finally got a breakthrough 72 minutes in when new boy Rudy Gestede headed in from a corner, sending us into jubilation. After we survived a ridiculous six minutes of extra time, the atmosphere was buzzing and the party really began.
Hilariously, someone printed out logos of West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City, and taped them in the men's restroom. As the day went on, they mysteriously made their way into the urinals, prompting me to add this to my snapchat:
Here we triumphantly stood after the match. I'm on the far right, somewhat obscured but you can still see the green sleeves on my shirt and a slice of my face. Thanks to Paul Marshall for taking this photo of everyone.
It was a great day overall. After the match ended, there was a raffle with great prizes, like a signed Dwight Yorke shirt and Brad Guzan's game worn boots. Someone even came away with a gilet, and was known only as "Sherwood" for the rest of the day.
"We now have a tradition that at each annual meetup we will try to raise as much money as possible for Acorns. Our event t-shirts sold like hot cakes and we had an amazing amount of raffle prizes donated. All in all we were able to raise just over $3,700 towards the cause this year via the raffle and t-shirt sales. A great effort by all involved," said Tissington.
Outside of Villa Park and the 2012 friendly against the Chicago Fire, I had never seen so many Villa fans in one place. The continued success of the event means it will take place next year, so mark your calendars for opening day, and maybe even book a flight to somewhere in North America! The exact date and location aren't yet known, but it never hurts to start planning.
"I keep getting asked if we will be doing it again in San Diego so we must have done something right! The short list for next seasons event is currently highly classified but all will be revealed in the New Year," said Tissington.
Find your local AVFC Supporters Club here. If you're one of the lucky ones among us that doesn't use Facebook, you can contact Simon Leach via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He'd be happy to help you find your closest branch, and also can offer advice if you'd like to start your own up! The San Diego group can be reached here: email@example.com.