There is a little bit of claret and blue in the Baltic Sea, on a Swedish speaking, Finnish island— one of 6,700 islands, islets, and skerries that make up the Aland Islands; where the 25,000 inhabitants live a relatively stress free life, with no long commutes to work or school in one of Finland’s strongest economic regions. It’s a beautiful setting, where many of the million visitors each year come for the scenery, a peaceful getaway, and to take advantage of the tax-free alcohol and tobacco shopping on the ferries that run from Sweden and Finland.
It is also the home of Jorgen Bolin, Chairman of the Official Aston Villa Aland Islands Lions Club, Villa-themed home brewer, and Tom Petty cover band musician.
It was an absolute pleasure to talk to Jorgen. You can sense behind his easy going nature that there is not only a wealth of Villa knowledge, but a passion for the club as strong as any you will find anywhere in the claret areas of Birmingham. The huge amount of interest in English football by Scandinavians has been well known for a while. Jorgen’s story perfectly encapsulates the progression of this strong following.
The origin of football on televsion in Scandinavian countries was down to Lars-Gunnar Bjorklund, from Swedish state broadcaster SVT, who was in England in 1967 to run a story about fox hunting. Foot and mouth disease put an end to the planned hunt and instead, he went to watch Tottenham Hotspur play Chelsea. It struck him that Swedes needed this kind of entertainment over their long winters and together with Danish, Norwegian, and Finnish broadcasters made a deal to screen one live English match every Saturday. The first one, in 1969, was Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Sunderland (1-0) and partly explains why the Wolves fan club in Sweden has around 500 members.
This led to the birth of the popular TV show, Tipsextra, that ran every Saturday afternoon. Jorgen has fond memories (“absolutely loved it!”) of what was a religion for thousands of Swedes, and the Swedish speaking Finns of Aland. Filling in pools coupons was another big part of the event as they sat around their family television, enjoying the main match, but also keeping updated with goal flashes from across the league.
This is where Jorgen describes his first uniquely frustrating comic moment of being a fan in Aland — one he can laugh at in hindsight. The broadcast very often ended before all the matches had finished. It left Jorgen and his fellow Aland-ers unaware of what all the final scores were. In the early 1980’s, there was no radio or television that reported the results. There was no newspaper on Sunday, so Jorgen’s celebrations of a Villa win or disappointment at a loss, were delayed until the Monday when the newspaper arrived from Finland.
In 1983 or ‘84, Jorgen says things got a little better when a Swedish tabloid became available in Aland on Sundays. But the bigger revolution for a football fan on an island in the Baltic Sea happened in 1985, with the advent of Teletext. Many a Saturday was spent “watching” the Villa through this life changing technology:
“My parents thought I was crazy!”
Up until the birth of the Premier League in the 1990’s, fans in Aland still only got to watch one weekly match on television. It was therefore quite normal that Villa would only be on about three times per season. Even though more English football was on television in 1996, it didn’t help Jorgen much when Villa played Leeds in the 1996 League Cup Final and is another example of the occasional hilarity of being a very dedicated overseas fan.
Jorgen was working in Denmark at the time. He went to his local bar, which was disappointingly showing “some regular league match”. Disgruntled, yet determined, he made his way to the train station where he knew his salvation lay. There, amongst the commuters and platforms and ticket offices, was a television that had Teletext. And that’s how Aland’s top Villa fan celebrated Villa’s 3-0 triumph. I hope the beauty of Savo’s wonder strike was somehow conveyed through the text on that television
So how did it all start for you, the love for Villa?
“It’s a good story,” Jorgen reminisces. “It was 1979 and I was playing for the local club. The chairman was a huge Tottenham Hotspur fan and he loved English football. He decided to have a league for the juniors. He bought kits for eight teams (English teams). He divided us into the teams and me and my best friend were playing for Aston Villa!”
Over the years, and beyond Swedish tabloids and Teletext, the love affair with Villa grew. Before setting up the Lions club, Jorgen travelled with the Swedish and Norwegian Villans to Villa Park. As tickets became harder to come by “in the Martin O’Neill days”, Jorgen explored the suggestion of setting up an official fan club. He spoke to the Club and with their assistance, a new Lions club was added to the worldwide Villa family, with 20 Villans as members.
Jorgen is happy to express his feeling of being part of this family.
“Absolutely! When I go to Birmingham, everyone’s been so friendly and they think it’s so good you come from Finland to watch our team. It’s been a really great atmosphere. I now have quite a few really good friends there.”
For Jorgen, the family also extends beyond Birmingham and the connection with the Swedes and Norwegians. Through his trips to Melbourne with his Australian born wife, Lisa, he also meets up with the Melbourne Lions. When I spoke to him he was in Melbourne and was looking forward to traveling to Queensland to meet up with a good friend from Birmingham he met on his many trips to Villa Park. Jorgen’s passion has rubbed off on Lisa. She was not a football fan before they met but “she sometimes wear Villa colours to school and gives the kids shit as soon as Villa beat the teams the students support”.
As North American fans get excited about the eighth annual North American meetup this May, which Jorgen marveled at — he mentioned that the way of getting together is through the English football supporters tournaments in Sweden. There is also one in Finland, which the Aland Villans haven’t taken part in.
“It’s a bit of a language barrier. We are not very good at Finnish,” says Jorgen the Finn. “We have Finnish in school, but we are absolutely piss poor. It’s such a difficult langauge!” Jorgen chuckles at the realisation from an outsider that these Finns are happily all Swedish speakers:
“Yeah, we’re like the Scots of Finland!”
Back in Aland, like everywhere, Covid-19 hit the size of the gatherings. Jorgen welcomes five or six people to his house for most matches. They are a happy and noisy bunch, always drawing the curious attention of the neighbours when Villa score. The last big get-together was in the bar across the street from Jorgen’s house for the 2019 play-off final. The Villans created an atmosphere that attracted more customers into the bar who wondered what the big event was. Jorgen proudly remembers, through his hearty laugh, that the day ended with the group being kicked out of the bar. Always the sign of a well celebrated win, right? However this is calm, laid back Aland and as Jorgen puts it, snickering, “we were told: ‘you guys should probably go home now’”.
And what about fans of other teams in Aland?
There are some Manchester United fans who share season tickets. A lot of people have been lured by the big teams, but Jorgen is happier knowing that he has come across fans of Stoke City, QPR and Nottingham Forest. And the Blues?
“Yes, I even know two Birmingham City fans in Aland,” he says with a cheeky dismissive laugh.
There is also time and energy for Aland’s local team and it’s not a bad one. IFK Mareihamn won the Finnish league for the first time in 2016 and Jorgen was excited about the prospect of a Villa-IFK European meeting, but he ruefully recalls that there was little chance of it happening at the time unless “Villa got their shit together”. If they did play in the future who would you support, Jorgen?
“Oh, that’s a really hard one. I can’t tell…..can’t tell….but you always want to back an underdog, right?” So is that Villa or IFK?
Jorgen found a new outlet for his Villa passion during Covid. He started brewing his own beer at home and the result is Thirst Class Brewery, complete with a Villa-themed logo and Villa inspired beers: Little Ripper, Withe or Without You ,and Tony’s Daley Ale. And it’s not like Jorgen didn’t have enough to keep him busy already — Lisa and him are in a band where the drummer is also a Villa fan.
“The name of the band is Pettin’ Wildberries. We started as a Tom Petty cover band after Tom Petty died. We now play other songs too, mainly one hit wonders from the 70’s-90’s (99 Luftballons, I want your love, and My Sharona). There’s some Aussie rock in there too, but most importantly it’s songs no other cover band plays, but most people know.”
It was wonderful spending time getting to know Jorgen. What started as an interest in a surprising location for a Lions club turned into an amazing connection with a Villa fan with a catalogue of stories and experiences based around Villa, all told with his infectious sense of humour. He could have a pub full of fans laughing about his Danish train station story. All in all, a trip to Aland would be worth it for a day spent watching Villa with Jorgen and his mates. This was just a taste of the Aland Lions and there are more stories in there.
Aland Islands, come for the tax free shopping, stay for the Villa!
Connect with the Aland Lions!
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/groups/villaaland
- Pettin’ Wildberries on Facebook and Instagram (@pettin_wildberries)
- Thirst Class Brewery: https://untappd.com/ThirstClassBrewery/beer
Interesting fact about Aland!
To impress the locals when you are next in Aland to watch Villa with Jorgen and his mates, know that the Aland Islands were a part of Sweden for 800 years, but after a war with Russia that the Swedes lost, the Islands became part of Finland that was ceded to Russia in 1809. After Finland’s independence in 1917, the people of the Aland Islands wished to be part of Sweden again, but after much diplomatic negotiating, the newly formed League of Nations decided that they should remain part of Finland. As a compromise, they were allowed to be an autonomous territory. Jorgen remembers that his grandmother learnt Russian at school and now Swedish is the only official language.