“Que sera, sera
Whatever will be, will be
We’re going to Canada
Que sera, sera”
Toronto, specifically. The eighth North American Lions meetup is happening this May — the Villa fan feast of all feasts. After a couple of Covid-19 enforced postponements, we hope this will be the grand reunion so many fans across America and Canada are looking forward to.
From Chicago in 2012 to six other American cities, the meetups have generated numerous, equally hazy and wonderful memories for North American and worldwide fans. The Kidderminster Lions are regular attendees. A great example of the depth of Villa support is my only personal discovery of the Lions clubs across the continent, including in Cincinnati — a group so dedicated to the Villa they even sponsored Indiana Vassilev!
In August 2017, my family and I drove from Toronto to Kentucky, drawn by the excitement of the Total solar eclipse. The date was in our calendar for a number of years and like looking forward to Villa playing at Wembley, it was going to be done no matter what it took. I cannot tell you the name of the town, though it was in a very rural Kentucky, outside of which we found a field for the perfect viewing. I can remember every detail of how all of sudden daylight became a weird, not-quite dusk/evening light and then near darkness. I can also remember our overnight stop in the very vibrant downtown Cinccinati. There was life everywhere, from the overflowing bars and restaurants, to good-time people dancing to live music in Fountain Square, to locals hanging out in the streets outside their homes off the main drag, and the Bengals fans heading across the bridge to watch their NFL team in pre-season action.
It was only a year later when I was in Minneapolis for a Villa’s pre-season friendly with 700 Villa fans that it hit me that seeing a Villa shirt in Cincinnati would not have been that unexpected. That’s when I grasped just how many supporters there are all over the two countries — from Cincinnati to Denver, Washington, Baltimore, Chicago, LA, Denver, Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, and on and on.
The Indiana Vassilev sponsorship is a great example of the quirks and dedication of being a Villa fan over here. And the early morning beer before coffee with fellow Villans wouldn’t be possible without an accommodating host bar. In Cincinnati, it’s the Rhinehaus and all its staff including the Chelthenham fan and bartender, James.
The Rhinehaus has been a very significant factor in the Cincinnati Lions success. Conor Thomas, the club chairman, and three of the regulars — Colin, Matt and Linley — all described how the group has grown; surprisingly during the Championship years. Having a place to call home every weekend is a huge factor and Linley describes it in a very simple, but true manner for many Lions clubs fans across North America:
“It’s pretty neat to be a fan in Cincy with a local bar around the corner that graciously opens early for us to watch matches and serves as a hub for our group to meet up at.”
In the summer of 2016, Conor and Matt agreed that they would meet at the Rhinehaus for every match as best possible.
“Sometimes that meant one of us was the only Villa supporter in the bar,” Matt recalls. “We felt that the only way to regrow the group was to commit so that if anyone ever asked, we would be able to say ‘Villa will be there.’ ”
The Rhinehaus played their part in promising to open for every match, just as long as at least one fan promised to be there. This led to the bar happily declaring during the Championship years that “We open for all Premier League matches…. and Aston Villa.”
To show appreciation for all of James’ work in support of the Lions, and to get behind a young American player on loan at the club, Conor, Matt and Colin decided to not let James be the only Chelthenham fan for a few hundred (thousand?) miles. The Vassilev sponsorship idea was born and for £250.00, the Cincinnato Lions were an official shirt sponsor. Of course, the perfect ending would have been Indiana’s goals leading them to promotion, but it wasn’t to be, with the match-worn shirt that they received as part of the deal hanging proudly in the bar to commemorate the wonderful effort.
Asking American Villans how they became fans is always an interesting exploration of the pull of Aston Villa. For Conor, it began while at college. When deciding on a team to support, he was pulled in by the “rich history and lively fan base”. Colin tagged along with a friend who wanted someone to watch the Villa with and fell in love. Linley has her husband and football-loving family to thank and is grateful to not have fallen for one of the “big” clubs that are popular in the United States.
Matt started watching the Premier League just over 10 years ago and decided he needed a team to follow. “The history, the colors, and not London-based” were the initial reasons, but the best probably is “very few people followed them, so it was almost a challenge to find mates”, which he has plenty of now.
Conor and Matt’s pact to keep the flickering flame of a Cincinnato Lions club alive in 2016 saw as many as 25 fans turn up for some matches prior to Covid-19, with 10 at the Rhinehaus most weeks. Colin was one of the early additions to the re-born club and came across them purely by chance when he and his friend who got him hooked on the Villa were in the Rhinehaus when “five or so people in Villa kits walked in”.
Conor, Matt, Colin and Linley all share in the pride of being the chosen Villa fans amongst the usual followers of the Liverpool’s and Man United’s in the United States. Linley loves that she, “a gal from Cincy”, became a Villan and while other fans that they share the pub with are curious as to how they became Villa fans, she doesn’t believe any of them have the same connection with their team.
My family members and friends who support other clubs in other cities in Ohio and across America do not have the same experience as me….having the Cincinnati Lions group that is really engaged with one another and so dedicated to the Villa.
Colin’s view reinforces that sentiment:
“It’s really been quite amazing being an Aston Villa fan in Cincinnati. For us in the States, it feels like you’re either a diehard soccer fan or dislike the sport, so to find a group of random individuals with all sorts of ages and backgrounds that just love Aston Villa is really cool. (Being a) Villa fan has been special. I have never heard of any of my friends going to nationwide meetups, or randomly deciding to sponsor one of our young talents. I do think Villa fans in America have a special quality to them. There aren’t any American glory hunters who ended up picking Villa. There seems to be a meaningful connection between the fans over here and the club.”
For Conor, there is one simple victory on a matchday at the Rhinehaus.
It’s a pretty great feeling when we have more Villa fans at the bar than some clubs like Manchester United, Chelsea, etc.
Towards the end of last season, four of the Cincinnati Lions, including Linley, Matt and Colin, got to the Rhinehaus for the Liverpool match in an unusual manner. Their participation in “Jack’s 10k challenge” — yes, that Jack! It’s been a while, but it’s a timeless example of the Lions commitment to all things Villa. The funny looks they got as they ran around Cincinnati in Villa shirts were all worth it for the cold pints and bagels in the Rhinehaus at the end.
The runners raised $360.00 for the Aston Villa Foundation. The Rhinehaus were happy to make a contribution, with other customers chipping in and the Liverpool supporters, probably relieved to partly avenge the 7-2 loss, added a touch of charity to their celebrations. This is evidence of the spirit generated by the Cincinnati Lions at the Rhinehaus and the camaraderie amongst all the football fans there.
Where you might expect loud, slanging matches and bitter chants across the many “soccer bars’’ across North America, you instead get a welcoming atmosphere and mutual appreciation of being an overseas fan. As Linley points out, “it’s fun to have competitive banter throughout the Premier League season, and to actually be able to watch our favorite teams regularly on the television here in America — it’s cool to see the awareness of it growing here in the United States.”
Matt‘s perception is that the interaction between fans of rival teams is very different to what it might be in a pub in the United Kingdom, “we buy beers for each other!” However, he is firm in his belief that “our local supporter’s group is more social than some of the others in Cincinnati, and since Rhinehaus is a bar (no food) versus a pub, we often bring in meals so we tend to be more festive.”
A trip to the Rhinehaus is definitely in order for any Villa fan visiting Cincinnati, or anywhere in Ohio or Kentucky.
So, all this incredible commitment to the Villa from so far away would not be complete without a trip to Villa Park for these four Villans. No hesitation from Linley when asked about whether she enjoyed it:
“Yes! It was all that I hoped it would be and more. I can’t wait to go back.”
Colin was very positive in calling his experience “breathtaking”, seeing as he was there for the 6-1 Man City defeat. He did at least have the consolation of a goal scored at the Holte End.
Matt and Conor have fantastic memories of the preseason match in Minneapolis. As Conor put it, “Hanging out with all the Villa fans from all over North America and wildly celebrating meaningless goals was pretty special.” Apart from a tour at Villa Park, he is still dreaming of being there for a match.
Matt, too, has only made it to Villa Park for a tour, but he has seen Villa play twice in two of their biggest matches in recent history, the play-off final versus Derby County and the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City.
It really is special meeting all of these truly dedicated Villa fans all across the United States and Canada. It has been said before and will be repeated without the word ever being overused, we are one Villa “family”, from Birmingham to the whole of the United Kingdom, to all of the fans overseas. Being part of the North American family has drawn everyone closer to each other and the club. After discovering a Lions club in Cincinnati with this much enthusiasm, never be surprised where you will meet Villa fans wherever you are in the world.
And if this has convinced you that you need to be with your fellow fans, book a flight, hop on a bus or a train, or pack your car and we will see you in Toronto in a few months!
Connect with the Cincinnati Lions!
- Twitter: @AVFC_Cincinnati
- Facebook: Cincinnati Lions
- Instagram: @villacincinnati
- Rhinehaus: @rhinehausotr
North American meetup information:
- Twitter: @TorontoLions
- Facebook: Aston Villa Toronto Official Lions Club
- Instagram: @torontolionsclub