The wonderful bonds that exist in the North American Villa family owe a lot of their strength to the many Lions’ Club chairpersons who put in tireless work to create this community. Two of the heavyweights on the scene are Simon Leach in Chicago and Rick Leong in San Francisco. They are polar opposites in how their backgrounds led them to the Villa, but they are equal and similar in their love for Villa, and for spreading the level of support in North America. They both deserve their own space, so here is Simon’s story with Rick’s to follow next week.
Simon Leach is the kind of guy who always makes an impression. It’s either through his presence at the Globe Pub in Chicago when Villa are playing or at any North American gathering of Villa fans. But just as important is the hard work that he puts in behind the scenes to make any of these events as successful as they are. He is a great supporter of anything Villa, including the Acorns’ Childrens’ Hospice charity. All North American Villa meet-ups incorporate fundraising for Acorns as a vital component. At the pre-seson friendly in Minneapolis in 2019, Simon volunteered to have his beloved beard shaved off for donations to Acorns’ fund; 18 months of growing gone for a very good cause.
Simon is the friendly bloke from Droitwich, just south of Birmingham, who will buy a drink for any newcomer to the Chicago Villa family and make them feel welcome. It is his personality, his dedication, and his love for Villa that has made the Chicago Lions one of the best known supporters’ groups, even in the UK. Fans visiting Chicago regularly show up at the pub, knowing they can watch with fellow Villans. The welcoming and friendly nature of the Chicago Lions may be partly due to Simon’s insistence on marking every Villa match (win or lose) with a shot of Chicago’s finest: the wonderfully bitter Swedish-inspired aperitif, Malört.
Watching football in a pub in the US usually means sharing the space with fans of other clubs. Simon is not a stranger to “abuse” being hurled around the pub between the different groups, but most of it is in good fun. This, to him, is one of the primary differences of being a fan in the US versus the UK. He laughs at the memory dishing out similar “banter” to a West Brom fan in a Birmingham City Center pub. He needed the support of his Kidderminster Lions mates to ease the tension of the situation.
And there are those Kidderminster Lions again, often mentioned as great friends of the North American Villa family. Simon gives them and other fans in the UK credit for being so welcoming to overseas fans.
I definitely do not feel like an outsider (when returning to Birmingham). We have formed some amazing bonds with supporters back in the UK. There are people back home we know will go out of their way to make our experience the best it can be, and whenever a North American Villan travels over, we can always find a local to look after them, whether it be at Villa Park, or any away day.
Like any ex-pat fan, Simon cherishes these visits to Villa Park, made more special by the distance.
Villa Park and the lead-up to the match (on the train, in the pubs, walking down Witton Lane) is an experience like no other. I still get chills and my adrenaline goes through the roof.
As chair of the Chicago Lions, Simon runs all three social media accounts for the club and also helps manage the North American Lions Facebook page. The ability to follow Villa with fans far away while watching with an established fan base in Chicago is a far cry from 1999 when he first moved to the United States. Following the Villa was a battle involving dial-up internet, slow, buffering audio streams and web text updates.
The birth of the Villa fan in him could have started when he was 5 and he was taken to Wembley to watch Villa in the 1975 League Cup final. However, he has no memory of the day, even who took him. His Dad was not a football fan and it was down to his Dad’s best mate being a huge Villa fan that he ended being taken to Villa Park regularly from when he was 12. His love for Villa took off from here and he was a season ticket holder for a number of years.
Those early days in the US of bad internet and a love for a team thousands of miles away made him stand out.
None of the Americans I knew could understand the obsession and at that time I had no expectation that I would find another nut job like me. How times have changed!
Nowadays there are no shortage of fellow “nut jobs” all over North America. Simon loves the sense of community and family amongst the overseas fans, while eagerly looking forward to the next annual meet-up in Toronto after Covid-19 forced its postponement in 2020.
The meet-ups we have over here…...are immensely important for building that bond, not only with Villa but also with people we would not ordinarily have met, who have by default become lifelong friends.
But, typical of Simon’s infectious sense of humor, he does make a tongue-in-cheek admission as to his motivations.
I would never have considered starting a supporters club if I lived back home. I and the other fantastic chairmen and women across North America get a lot of thanks for doing what we do, but at the end of the day, I tell people I do it because I am selfish. I do not want to watch games on my own. I want people to be with me to enjoy the highs and commiserate the lows with. If I still lived back home, there would be 40,000 plus people already at the game to do that with.
I would strongly encourage anyone who is in an area where an official Lions Club does not exist, to seriously consider setting one up. There are many people that will help with the process, and as they say, if you build it, people will come.
Further proof of how Simon loves all things Villa is his endless enthusiasm to see the Villa family grow.
Anyone that is not aware of our annual meet-ups, please join the North America Facebook group, or follow me (or any one of the many supporters’ groups) on Twitter and Instagram, and look it up. It is an event that attracts people from far and wide. We have had attendees from the UK, Ireland, Malta, Bahrain, and all across North America attend previous years, and for me, it is the first thing I put on my calendar once the date and location have been set. It truly is an event you will want to do once, and I have no doubt you will be back again the following year.
Connect with the Chicago Lions!
- Twitter: @ChicagoVillans
- Facebook: Official Aston Villa Lions Club, Chicago; Aston Villa North America
- Instagram: @official_avfc_chicago_lions