Cast your mind to a pre-pandemic Saturday afternoon in Aston. Aston Villa fans pour off the train and as you walk along Queen’s Road, you are moving along with the increasing crowds that hit Witton Lane.
Maybe you stop for a cheeseburger at the food truck under the Aston Expressway. You might pop into your regular pre-match pub or maybe you arrive at Villa Park early to enjoy the vast silence and emptiness of the Holte End.
Three and a half thousand miles away in Toronto, a similar ritual would play out among the members of the local Aston Villa Lions’ club. Before Covid, which has kept Toronto on lock-down for a year, around 20 fans come together at the club’s pub, with numbers rising to 40–50 for the bigger weekend matches and close to 100 for the Carabao Cup Final.
Chairman of the club, Brett, and his wife Aisha, are there early to set the scene, hang the flags, check the seating is laid out well, and do anything to bring a bit of the Villa Park experience to the pub for the fans who will come from all over the city and its suburbs.
“We try our best to create something that is as close as we can to Villa Park. Obviously, nothing will ever compare to VP, but we do our best.”
Brett is a lifelong Villa fan who grew up in Birmingham, between Harborne, Quinton, and Warley; he never imagined that he would be organizing events for Aston Villa fans in Toronto. In Canada, eh? Although it was quite the change at first, watching football away from his “UK bubble”, it wasn't long before it was evident that he was surrounded by passionate and knowledgable fans, “fellow Villans”.
His time as chairman, since April 2019, has coincided with better times for Villa. That would be the easy explanation for the upswing in enthusiasm throughout the Toronto group during his time at the helm. It is also largely due to Brett’s tireless work and Aisha’s support
Aisha grew up in Canada watching Manchester United with her dad on television, intrigued by the singing crowds. Her love for Aston Villa started as a curiosity through Brett. After moving to Birmingham for love and finding out that Villa Park was more than a “nice park” in England, she fell in love again when Brett bought her a season ticket.
“The Villa, the fans, the atmosphere, everything. I love Birmingham, it’s my home away from home and the Villa are an important part of that,” added Aisha.
Together, Brett and Aisha have played a willing part in helping to create a welcoming place to be a Villa supporter for all the ex-pats and the many other international fans. And it is the group as a whole that contributes to Brett’s feeling of an irreplaceable camaraderie and friendship, beyond the football. Aisha echoes this sentiment, mentioning the “friends and connections” they have all made through our weekly get-togethers.
The sense of family is a constant theme when the local ‘Brummies’ talk about their fan experience here. Gary, from Yardley, says the Lions club is a “family away from home” and being at the pub “makes me feel closer to home.” George moved from Selly Oak and says it is “a brilliant way to keep a bit of Birmingham in my life.”
Luke goes as far as to think of many of his fellow Villans here as replacement family members to those in Harborne.
This group has helped me when I was down, hugged me when I was sad, and embraced me when I was happy. Without them, I’d have been lost. I’ve met our North American brothers and sisters and gained friends across the globe . . . all under the clause of “Villa fandom.
Luke remembers how warmly the group welcomed him after arriving in 2015. He was introduced to the Toronto Lions while working behind the scenes for local sports channel, TSN, during Euro 2016. He eventually looked up the Lions and began what would turn out to be a beautiful friendship with the group.
“From the moment I walk in, I’m welcomed warmly; people remarking about my Johnny Bravo-esque hair whilst offering me a pint and a seat.”
One member of this family is Sarbjit, who takes them on an “Indian culinary tour,” either through invites to his favorite Toronto restaurants that serve tastes of home or happily sharing recipes from his family in King’s Heath. Sarb also regularly keeps the club entertained post-Villa matches with requests to the pub staff for Black Sabbath music to educate any newcomers as to where the great band are from.
Elliot may have grown up in London, but Villa have been in his life forever. He reflects on how the Lions have made him feel more at home, not as a comment on missing being back in England, but more of a common sentiment that Toronto is a new home; complete with a weekly substitute for a Villa Park experience in the local pub, surrounded by equally passionate and devoted Villa fans.
It’s “the other Villa Park,” said Elliot.
Brett remembers how, as a new immigrant to Canada, meeting the Lions provided an instant group of friends and watching with these Villans has “helped replace Villa Park a lot more than I expected”.
Gary nominated himself as the group’s bad luck charm (“Always lose when I come”), but on the good days “it’s great to jump around celebrating our goals with passionate fans.”
Tom moved to Toronto in 2015 and was happily surprised that others recognized his Villa shirt, which he wore to Toronto FC matches; a connection born out of Villa playing a friendly during Toronto’s first season in 2007. His fan experience in Toronto was an adjustment after the banter with his West Brom, Birmingham, and Wolves supporting mates in the shadow of the Cadbury factory in Bournville.
But he now laughs at the suggestion of overseas fans being any less devoted. “Getting up at seven in the morning on a weekend” is a way of life for a Villa fan. Like other ex-pats, he enjoys the company of the die-hard Villa fans in the group and suggests “having some sort of geographical distance can provide valuable perspective.”
Leading up to the Championship playoffs in 2019, Tom, the resident football writer, contributed an article to the My Old Man Said blog about how Villans around the world needed Villa in the Premier League for better TV coverage, if nothing else. Ironically, a few days later he exemplified what watching Villa was like in the Championship days.
As one of the fans lucky enough to get out of work on a weekday afternoon, he was part of the nerve-stricken group watching the second leg of the playoff semi-final. The anxiety of extra-time was heightened by the breakdown of the pub’s smoking television, which couldn’t handle the live stream. In the end, Villa’s famous penalty shoot-out win was watched by a loud crowd straining their eyes around one small cell phone screen.
The international flavor in the group is as varied as the city — Ireland, Nigeria, Singapore, and beyond; we all bleed claret and blue. Obviously, there’s also a good number of Canadians, some with direct family connections to Birmingham and others who were football fans that fell in love with Villa because they never fancied one of the more fashionable sides within the Premier League elite. George has a happy “respect for those who choose Villa”.
Elliot jokes that at first he was convinced that Canadian fans “followed Manchester United” at best; however, he now admits to realizing how wrong he was. Luke was struck by the “melting pot of cultures,” all united by “their passion for this wonderful football club.”
Mine is one of many varied stories of how Lions members who didn’t grow up in Birmingham or even England became a fan. It was a Saturday afternoon in Malta, May 1981, for me when luck and the availability of a Villa shirt at a local sports shop set me on my Villa journey. Princeton’s family moved from Nigeria to Warwickshire when he was a young kid and he immediately fell in love with the likes of Dean Saunders and Dalian Atkinson, thinking they were “more exciting than Coventry”.
Mikey was a football fan in Singapore, but Liverpool and Manchester United dominated the TV coverage. He too was wooed by Atkinson, specifically for his brilliant solo goal against Wimbledon shown on the weekly highlights. This, and his determination to not jump on the new Arsenal bandwagon at the time, turned him into an obsessed Villa fan.
From Toronto, Mikey bought a flight to London right at the final whistle of the playoff second leg against West Brom and without any idea how he would buy a ticket for the final. He was completely unaware of the existence of the Toronto Lions and how being a Lions club member helps with buying match tickets for overseas fans.
As Mikey celebrated into the night in London, the win fully justifying what he spent on a match ticket, he was completely unaware there was a huge Villa fan party going on in Toronto. It was only last season that a customer at his pizza restaurant noticed his Villa shirt and made him realize that, contrary to his belief, he was not the only Villa fan in Toronto.
When it comes to connecting Villa fans with the Toronto Lions, there is no one better at it than Andrew Lochhead. As prolific at increasing the club’s numbers as Andy Lochhead was at scoring for Villa in the early 1970s, I joined the group because my wife noticed Andrew wearing a Villa scarf at an art event she was attending on the Toronto Islands and connected us.
Elliot bumped into him on a Toronto street wearing a Villa shirt. Other instances of Andrew spotting Villa shirts or others noticing his colors resulted in an invitation to watch a match at the pub. Andrew is always relieved when he isn’t asked why he’s wearing a West Ham shirt!
It seems all the Lochheads of Dumbartonshire were related, so a seventh or eighth cousin (several times removed) of Andy’s is his best claim to fame. When his parents mentioned the “professional soccer player” of the same name, Andrew hadn’t yet discovered the mighty Villa.
He became a fan to annoy his Arsenal supporting mate as they watched Villa play Arsenal in 1998 and used his family name as a good reason for his choice. The two Dion Dubin goals in the 3–2 comeback win was the start of a wonderful relationship.
Andrew has been, and is, the glue who brings the club together. We were all delirious when Alan Hutton scored that goal against the Blues and equally, if not more, ecstatic for Andrew that he got to see that goal from the Holte End — it was his 40th birthday celebration and his first trip to Villa Park.
This is us, some of us, the Toronto Lions. We are a diverse, interesting, and fun family who welcome anyone to join us. As Brett puts it so well, it’s a place where every Villa fan will feel comfortable from those who have never missed a game in person to the armchair fan.
Anyone from anywhere in the world could land in Canada for the first time, look up the group on social media, and not only would he or she be welcomed as though they are there every week, but the drink of their choice would probably be waiting for them when they walked into the pub.
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