There are Aston Villa fans everywhere you look across Canada.
From the East Coast in Nova Scotia to 6000 kilometres away in Vancouver in the West, there is many a pub where you could watch the Villa with local fans. And right in the middle of this vast country are two of Villa’s most devoted fans who, together with a bit of Kidderminster thrown into the mix, are great examples of the incredible breadth of Aston Villa fandom.
Brittany Klein in Winnipeg and Daniel Peever in Thunder Bay offer an insight into some of the wonderful peculiarities of the global Villa fan base. Winnipeg and Thunder Bay? Look either city up on a map and you will see the distance from any major Canadian city that you may have heard of and one where you would expect there to be an ex-pat, football-loving community.
Brittany is the first person to be welcomed at the door of the Holte Pub in Aston as the Chairperson of the Official Aston Villa Supporters Club, Winnipeg, of which she is also the founder.
Daniel is a bit of a celebrity amongst North American Lions and dare I say, in a few pubs around Villa Park and in Stoke; “Peev”, the loud and friendly Canadian who may have become a fan as a stereotypical result of awful Northern Ontario winters.
Brittany played football in her school days, but in an ice hockey-mad city, had little interest in it beyond that. Her coming around as a fan was out of curiosity and her love for Villa followed a well-timed admiration of Ron Vlaar combined with a love of Harry Potter.
The different country flags flying on cars in Winnipeg leading up to the 2014 World Cup had her and her partner curious, followed by a decision to follow Holland. The discovery that her favorite player, Ron Vlaar, was also Villa’s captain helped make her decision when she came to choosing a team to adopt. Finding out that actor Oliver Phelps was also a fan helped Brittany, the Harry Potter fan, know she had made a smart choice.
Right from the beginning, Brittany was swept up by the strong feeling of community amongst the Villa family. She reached out online as a new fan and was instantly welcomed — it is something that has lasted and strengthened over the years.
“I always say that Lions clubs are special. I could be very biased and ignorant, but I truly don’t think that other clubs have what Villa has. I’ve seen really great support for other clubs. I’ve seen that people are connected and are friends through their club but I really don’t think they have it to the point we do. We don’t end our connection and friendship with football. It just doesn’t end there for us; it’s really just the beginning.
“If it wasn’t for Villa, I would have missed out on so many meaningful friendships and relationships. It really does make me emotional. Who else can pretty much say that they have friends or at least a connection in every corner of the globe?”
The Winnipeg Lions are a small group and being a fan there can feel a bit lonely, Brittany laments. Social media adds a tinge of jealousy, seeing the bigger gatherings in other North American cities, but also offers a great way to stay connected. She has been a regular attendee at the annual North American meet-ups, her “family reunions”.
Her drive and desire to find existing and new fans in Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba is never ending. As a teacher, she came up with the unique idea of introducing “Aston Villa” into her curriculum during the 2018/19 promotion season, the highlight of which was setting up a live stream in her classroom of the play-off matches for her young class to watch. She also insisted with a visiting Villa fan friend that they walk through snow drifts and -35 Celsius weather to add Villa stickers to the sign marking the Longitudinal Centre of Canada (a half hour drive from her home).
And, of course, any Villa fan’s story is made more special with the description of a first visit to Villa Park.
“That walk to Villa Park is unlike anything. You’re surrounded by so many people there for the same reason. Nothing else in the world matters. I remember walking up the steps to the upper Holte on my first trip over. I don’t know what I was really expecting at the time. I just thought ‘oh, I’m walking into this stadium’.
“But as you climb those grey concrete steps, you get to a point where that grey goes away and the entirety of your vision is illuminated with the green from the pitch. I remember thinking that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so green in my life. I couldn’t look away! I still had stairs to climb to get to my seat and I kept trying to walk and look back because it was just so mesmerizing. That was the moment where it clicked, that ‘oh my gosh, I’m actually here. This is a real thing’ moment”.
Her last trip is where the Kidderminster Lions enter the story.
A pre-match visit to the Holte Pub to meet up with the Kidderminster Lions was almost interrupted when Brittany was stopped at the door as her name was not marked down as a Kidderminster Lions’ guest. But to her relief and with a feeling of great pride, she was happy to be recognized as Brittany, “who now has her own club”.
The Kidderminster Lions influence bleeds into Daniel Peever’s story and is in fact something that comes up regularly amongst North American Lions. The association started in 2012 when a group of them traveled to Chicago for Villa’s pre-season friendly and had already connected with Daniel over social media when he knew that they were going to be in Chicago.
Typifying Daniel’s larger than life and outgoing personality, he describes their first meeting outside the designated Villa pub in Chicago.
“The Kiddy boys were across the street heading to the pub for the first time,” he recalls and in his loud voice welcomed them with, “It’s the Kiddy boys” and proceeded to give them all bear hugs. “We’ve been best friends ever since!,” said Daniel.
Paul Harris, of the Kidderminster Lions, remembers how they made a lot of Canadian and American Villa friends on that first trip and have returned many times since for annual meet-ups or pre-season friendlies in the US.
Over the years, they reciprocated their warm welcome over here with offers of help for any fans making the trip to Birmingham. Being season ticket holders and organizers of transport to away matches, their support for overseas fans has been invaluable. Any North American fan knows they can meet the Kidderminster boys and girls for a drink in Birmingham whenever they are there to watch the Villa.
So how does a Canadian living in a city, “proud to be home to the largest number of outdoor rinks and professional hockey players per capita in Canada” (According to Thunder Bay Tourism) become an Aston Villa fan?
Playing video games, especially FIFA, to help connect with the world during cold winters would be the easy label. But while Daniel would probably dispel the “it’s too cold to go out” myth, the FIFA part is true. Playing online with a friend in Toronto, he got into the 2006 World Cup and moved onto having to pick a club where the rule was “no top 4” Premier League team.
Villa were 6th at the time, he liked the look of the team, and playing regularly, Daniel got to know the players (i.e., Young, Downing, Dunne, Gabby, and Milner). In 2008, he happened to turn on the television as Villa were playing Arsenal and he knew for sure he had been chosen!
A Brighton fan friend in Thunder Bay (is that even more surprising than a Villa fan in that city?) encouraged him to go to England to experience Villa live. His first trip was in April of 2011 and the magic of it all had him hooked, making the trip to Villa Park seven times since.
Daniel truly is a dedicated fan — he has not only been to Villa Park, but also to multiple away matches. However, he hasn’t yet seen a home win at Villa Park.
The first win he did see was at Stoke when Matt Lowton scored that goal and he flew over to England on a whim for a 3 day trip to see Villa’s 2015 FA Cup semi-final win. His fun loving personality has had a big influence on fans he has met all over England and North America; you always know when “Peev” is in the pub! It is definitely a testament to his popularity that “Peevfest” was organized in his honor in April of 2014.
While he is geographically quite remote and watches most Villa matches alone at home or more recently with his young son, Daniel is incredibly connected with the North American family. He has made many trips to Toronto and US cities just to watch matches with the local Lions clubs. He has attended all but one of the annual North American meet-ups and even hosted one in Thunder Bay.
The global pandemic forced the postponement of Daniel’s planned 2020 wedding. He sees it as a mark of the closeness of the Villa family that out of the 45 guests who were invited, around 20 of them have a Villa connection.
“My experience really is out of this world. The Villa family is real and we all look out for each other. Every time I go somewhere I reach out to locals and almost always, without missing a beat, people happily meet up for beers. I feel our community is very unique and rare in the football world of North America. Lots of clubs have supporter groups across the continent, but I don’t think they are nearly as connected as we are.”
If ever you happen to be in Winnipeg or Thunder Bay, know that you will have a Villa fan happy to welcome you and with whom you can watch the mighty Villa. Maybe you should plan a trip to both places just for that reason.
Connect with the Winnipeg Lions!
- Twitter: @avfcwinnipeg
- Facebook: Aston Villa Supporters Club, Winnipeg