July 23, 7 p.m. ET
Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia, PA
Garrett Hughes is ready for a party, all set to welcome the Villa world to Philadelphia: “The number one city in the world, baby!”
Come for the football and take in as much as you can of this great city, is his message to visiting fans. “Enjoy some of the best food in the country, learn about the rich history of the city, and experience some of the best art and museums per capita in any city in the world.”
Garrett, are you looking forward to Villa coming to town?
“I’m beyond excited!”
He is a ball of enthusiasm when it comes to talking about Villa and Philadelphia. For someone who jokingly admits that he became chair of the Aston Villa Philadelphia Lions for selfish reasons, it is also no surprise that he is thinking about many other people for whom this is going to be such a great event.
“This will be my third time watching Villa in person, not nearly enough, but will be many people’s first time. I even am dragging along many of my non-soccer-loving fans and hoping they’ll get to enjoy some genuine EPL atmosphere, or as close as you can get outside of England.”
Looking back, Garrett’s “chosen by Villa” moment happened as it did for many other American fans of English football: largely through a desire to not follow teams like Manchester United or Liverpool that friends of his were choosing to support. Villa’s colours, the team crest, and Ashley Young called out to him.
This was 2009 and with Villa doing “well enough” in the league, he had his team. As a 12-year-old living in a “super small town” in Maryland, he admits there was not a lot of exposure to English football and he wasn’t a very engaged fan. A Villa calendar gifted to him by his parents for Christmas was his way of knowing who was in the Villa team.
His interest in football stemmed from playing from the age of six and going to watch Columbus Crew games with his family while visiting his dad, who was in the Navy Reserves. His parents were not huge fans by any means but saw soccer as a better alternative for Garrett to be involved in than pigskin football. Fast forward a few years to the later years of high school and the level of support went up a few notches.
“I started catching as many games as I could. From there, my love (for Villa) grew deeper and here I am, 14 years later, riding that five-minute decision that 12-year-old me made”.
In the summer of 2019, Garrett’s college graduation gift from his mum (at his request!) was a trip to see Villa play a pre-season friendly in Minnesota. The trip was just the beginning of the next part of the journey.
He started his search in Philadelphia for other Villa fans. Nothing. He then reached out to Simon Leach, chairman of the Chicago Lions, and a real authority on all things Villa in North America. Simon told him the previous Philadelphia Lions group was not operating anymore and Garrett should consider starting a new one. Put in some work, Simon advised, and you will be invited to the team’s closed practice open to all the Chairs in Minnesota.
“Hmm. I make a Facebook group, invite people to drink in the mornings of matches together, and I get to meet my heroes?” Done. And that’s how he became the Philadelphia Lions Chair.
He jokes about the way he took on this role, but ever since he has put a lot of effort into trying to reverse what he sees as an interesting and unexpected uniqueness of the Philadelphia Lions.
“Philadelphia seems to be the only major US city without a Villa fan in it.” Garrett wanted to make it a Lions group worthy of such an amazing, sports-loving city.
“I did outreach, I asked club networks, I posted on Twitter, Facebook groups, soccer chats, and I’ll be damned if I couldn’t get more than a couple of guys. Shout-out to Alex Poli, the only guy who showed up to our first official meetup even though he lives a couple of hours northwest of Philly. From there, I was hit up by Ashton Evetts who used to be New York-based before moving down to Philly and was looking for some fans. For a while, our “meetups” were us two drinking in the mornings together.”
Building the group is a constant work in progress. Ashton and Garrett have been joined by long-time fan Dave Aliquio and the three of them watch as often as possible at their new spot, the Black Taxi, a “fantastic little Irish pub.” Needless to say, Garrett is excitedly optimistic about the prospect of new fans joining their group with all the exposure of this visit by Villa.
“We’re a tight-knit group that will always be extremely pleased to welcome any new faces at a quaint, small bar.”
Garrett’s second time watching Villa was his “trip of a lifetime” to Villa Park, on December 23, 2018. Villa were playing Leeds in the Championship. The lingering good feeling of Dean Smith’s appointment together with the pre-Christmas spirit, a packed Villa Park, and a 2-0 first-half lead made for what could have been a memorable victory. Alas, it was the heartbreak of a 3-2 defeat for Garrett and all the Villa fans. In true Villa fan style, he even predicted to his dad at half-time that this was the kind of game Villa could lose.
The football was just a part of the whole experience, something his dad had suggested they do together while Garrett was on his way to visit his parents who were living in Spain. From the locals he met in the pub on his first night in Birmingham to all the people he interacted with over the time he was there, he developed a real affinity and appreciation for the city.
“Everyone I met was so nice. Over the couple of days before the match, I really fell in love with the city. It reminds me so much of Philadelphia. There’s a deep historical nature to it all and so much to learn. It’s smaller but still feels big with so much to do. I drank with a few different groups of people and they were just like Philadelphians - deeply critical of their city and ready to make fun of it, but only in a humorous self-deprecating way, because they also loved it and would in detail tell me of all the things I should do and see. It really only reinforced my love for Villa.”
Entering Villa Park was magical.
“I remember almost crying when I walked into the stadium for the first time because I finally got to be a part of it all. I felt like a little kid going to my first MLB game at Camden Yards but everything was so much bigger and intense. I sat front row along the sideline and this was before the Minnesota game so seeing all of these guys so close was magical.”
What could spoil the day, apart from the result?
“As an American sports fan, the only drawback was not being able to drink beer in my seat!”
Here he is, five years later, looking forward to seeing the team in his city, welcoming fans from all over the world.
“The Philly meetup is gearing up to be the largest of the three matches due to our convenient location. I think English fans will be very happy with the amount of support they are going to encounter.”
He also believes overseas fans will appreciate the contrast of being a Villan over here, and the effort put into building the North American Villa family. But wherever your background is, we all have a connection.
“I think a love for Aston Villa is a real bonding thing that everyone who has it will easily be able to feel right at home with us.”
He would love it if he had the opportunity to meet any of the players or management at one of the many planned activities. But again, it's not about himself.
“The schedule is so packed I don’t expect much beyond camaraderie and sharing what the city has to offer which is more than enough for me.”
Look up Garrett and the Philadelphia Lions on social media for all the latest updates on what’s going on over the match weekend, including locations for pre-match festivities. And, as another Philly Lion, pointed out recently:
“Everyone coming to Philly to see Villa owes this man a handshake (or beer!) for all his hard work.”
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