The countdown to the Eighth Annual North American Aston Villa Lions meet-up in Toronto, Canada this May is well and truly into the home stretch. Why should anyone travel across or to North America for one of the Aston Villa Lions meet-ups? Because it’s a “bunch of Villa fans sitting in a bar getting drunk watching villa on TV!”
That’s the off the cuff response from Paul Harris of the Kidderminster Lions. But there is more, way more to it than that. If you haven’t yet rented your car, booked your flights or hooked yourself up with a ride to Toronto, you’re not too late. Paul has been a regular attendee and can share quite the number of memorable stories.
In our conversation, Paul came back to the “why” often, always looking for the right words to describe the feeling, the experience that goes beyond any one particular event at the meet-ups.
“Try to explain traveling thousands of miles to watch a game on TV when we are season ticket holders, and have paid for it, to go and watch on TV. There must be something good about it.”
The “It” is the “F” word that has been mentioned so many times in conversations with Villans across the world. Coming to Canada or the United States each time is like “coming back to visit family”.
“It’s a family event,” Paul muses. “These are not just fans. I don’t think other clubs have anything similar to the Villa Lions network. You can go anywhere and if you post on social media you’ll have a place to meet.”
The Kidderminster Lions were formed officially in 2010. Prior to that they were already a great resource for Villa fans in the area, putting on buses for big matches (Wembley, Carling Cup semi-final, etc.) or helping get tickets for regular away matches. In their first official year, they were voted supporters club of the year. In the past, they had around 150 members, many of whom were North Americans who did not have their own club. Adrian Mizzi, a Toronto Lion, was the first overseas member. Paul and his mates helped a lot of these members set up their own Lions branches, but even as they lost members to their newly formed club, the Kidderminster Lions still remain one of the biggest supporter clubs in the United Kingdom.
Nowadays, the Kidderminster Lions organize buses for away games and help with flights and hotels for European or North American tours. For the away matches, it’s sometimes just simply helping create the atmosphere for a group of like minded fans.
“People love traveling with us even if we just tell them what train we will be on.”
Very often these fans are from North America. The Kidderminster Lions have a degree of fame and a truck load of gratitude amongst Villans traveling from Canada and the United States. They always go out of their way to help with a place to stay or to welcome overseas fans to a pre or a post-match drink. Paul is very humble about how welcoming him and his mates are to North American visitors.
“It’s a reciprocal thing. Whenever we are over for tours, whoever is hosting goes over the top to look after us. So we return the favour. Things have changed in terms of tickets, but we always try and get tickets for anyone who might be struggling. We try to do whatever we can to help our fellow Villans across the pond. As we say, it’s a family rather than a bunch of supporters.”
He has extremely fond memories of all the complementary generosity in North America, stretching back to Villa’s pre-season tour of Chicago in 2012 and the connection with Simon Leach and Daniel Peever, chairmen of the Chicago and Thunder Bay Lions.
Simon is an expat who grew up close to Kidderminster, so he was happy to welcome Paul’s group when they responded to his Facebook posts in advance of the Chicago friendly. As Paul happily recalls when Simon organizes something, “he likes to go over the top”. Daniel had visited Birmingham a few times before the Chicago get together and hung around a lot of the same pubs as the Kidderminster Lions. He was in touch when he heard they were coming over and knowing that he was also going to be in Chicago. Daniel remembers the first meeting fondly:
“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!”
“These were connections we could get to grips with,” Paul says of the instant friendships with Simon and Daniel. And there were a lot more born out of the nights in the pubs of Chicago.
“Thank god for social media that we could remember who they were when they were sending friend requests a few days later!”
“They (the North American Villans) do so much in terms of looking after us and making our time more enjoyable and less stressful in terms of accommodation and thinking about what we are going to do.”
“Kurt Maciej took us to random bars and restaurants in Austin that we wouldn’t know about. Simon Leach had arranged an internal flight and I was going to stay with him before Minneasota (but I had to cancel my trip). Adrian Mizzi put me and (fellow Kidderminster Lion) Mark Byworth up in Toronto when we came for a wedding. We stayed with Simon Tissington in San Diego.”
And as for the meet-ups, it’s the local Lions that make the weekends, the weeks, memorable and why the Kidderminster Lions kept coming back.
“As things got more organized and got more and more wacky in terms of things being organized, more people thought, yeah, I could handle this and more started coming on board. In San Francisco Rick got tickets for batting practice for the Oakland A’s; Kurt took us shooting. It’s these sorts of things that we wouldn’t have the opportunity to do if it wasn’t for the guys organizing these events. Whoever is hosting always puts on a good show and they always get better and better and bigger as years go on. Because we are traveling, we make a week of it and become a tourist as well as a Villa fan. You are doing things you wouldn’t normally do as a tourist.”
The Kidderminster Lions have done European tours. They met the Prague Lions before traveling together to Dresden a few summers ago. They’ve had weekends with the Irish and Belgian Lions. However, Paul admits to a bit of a North American bias:
“North Americans are lucky with the likes of Simon Leach and the committee of chairmen. Rick Leong and Kurt Maciej were involved from the start. It’s amazing the items Rick gets for the auctions.”
The auction held at the meet-ups to benefit Acorns Childrens Hospice is a huge part of the weekend. Rick’s amazing efforts in 2019 yielded $15,000 in donations.
After all the talk of meet-ups and new adventures to look forward to, we can’t forget that we are all in this because of our love for the mighty Villa and that love comes with opinions. I had to ask Paul his view of the season:
“It’s been a difficult one. It started off alright. Dean Smith maybe deserved longer, but Steven Gerrard seems to be the right move. He’s been able to bring in the right kind of player. The fact that we are inconsistent shows there is work to do and we are a work in progress. Fans might be disappointed about not getting into Europe, but we are not ready.
A possible deal with Coutinho would attract other players and it would be a big statement. The owners have said it’s a gradual job to get us back to where we belong. I’m more than happy with how things are going. You get ups and downs, but that’s the Villa. They never do anything you expect them to do. That’s all the enjoyment of riding with the Villa.”
The excitement is building in Toronto. The final preparations are well underway to welcome the over 150 Villans who will add quite the touch of claret and blue to the city, from the Toronto Blue Jays game, to the booze cruise on Lake Ontario, and all weekend at the host bar, the historic Wheatsheaf Tavern. You can still be a part of it. Paul and six other Kidderminster Lions will be here, plus a few Yorkshire and Irish Lions and the chairman of the Kent Lions. Paul has the final word about what he and I agreed is always “organized chaos”.
“If you get the opportunity, you’ve got to go to one (meet-up) and you won’t regret it. There will be people there you will know and there will be a lot of people you will get to know and know for years. Once you go to one you want to go to every one — it’s like a drug.”