In our last visit to North American cities we met Simon Leach, Chicago Lions chairman. While Simon is the boy from Droitwich who brought his love of Villa to the US, Rick Leong is the guy who has taken his love for Villa from the seed that was planted in San Francisco all across the United States and back to Birmingham.
Rick is the chairperson of the California Lions and his story shows a special attachment to Villa. He was chosen due to his love of helping others, something that he has carried on with and grown within the Villa community. Ian Taylor and Tom Hanks feature in his story, as do the many, many Villans in North America who have shared a drink and a wonderful conversation with this very generous man.
Rick was definitely a latecomer to football. After watching the main American sports in his youth (American football, basketball, baseball) his interest started with the San Jose Earthquakes, his local MLS team. Watching the Premier League on television followed and Rick decided to research which team he should follow, knowing he didn’t want to fall for one of the traditional “big teams” that most Americans supported. It is maybe a good thing that nobody pointed out to Rick at the time what a big club Villa really are!
At the same time he was volunteering at a local pediatric hospice. This led to him coming across Acorns Children’s Hospice, which matched with him discovering that Villa were about to connect with Acorns and as Rick puts it, “Right there and then, I realized that I didn’t need to pick a team, my team just chose me!”
From that beginning, Rick’s support of Villa and the North American family has been one of full commitment. He has attended every annual meet-up and pre-season friendly in North America. He first went to Villa Park in 2012 and had returned every year, including for both Championship play-off finals, until covid made a 2020 trip impossible. Dedication is a necessary quality of every West Coast Villa fan, who often have to decide between an all-nighter or an early wake-up. A lunchtime kick-off in the UK is 4:30am in San Francisco. Later matches (7am!) see the California Lions meet at the Kezar pub, which also hosted the 2019 annual meet-up.
Rick’s memory of his 2012 trip is one to make us all jealous. It’s not that he was there to see Villa draw 1–1 with Tottenham and secure their safety from relegation. No, it’s a lot happier than that. After that match the UK Lions Club chairs took to the pitch, the Villa Park pitch, to play their overseas counterparts. Losing the match could not tarnish what was a “once in a lifetime experience” for Rick.
The Lions’ meet-ups have been well-documented previously as legendary events that any visitor to North America should aim to attend. Rick echoes the sentiments of other American and Canadian fans.
The Lions Clubs that exist now across N. America are one big Claret and Blue family. (They) are so very special. When we talk to other supporters and tell them about our huge annual meet-ups, large gatherings at USA pre-season tours (2012 Portland/Chicago/Philadelphia, 2014 Houston/Dallas, and 2019 Minneapolis), they can’t believe the connection we have with the club.
One of the most memorable was 2016 in Chicago when he and the other chairs picked up club legend Ian Taylor at the airport in the limo they had rented for the weekend’s special guest. While that was a big coup, Rick is always aiming big, very big. Tom Hanks has been on his radar for a while and we may need to update the happy ending to this story when Mr. Hanks finally says yes to Rick’s requests.
Rick’s charity work is hugely important to him. The San Francisco meet-up that he and the California Lions hosted is remembered for the great weekend party that it was. However, what’s also amazing is the $15,000 raised for Acorns. Rick has set the bar very high for future events. It is a happily competitive target for a wonderful cause, one that is best left to Rick to describe.
Having the N. America Lions club supporting Acorns every year means the world to me. I did the first Acorns fundraiser in 2012 in Portland (part of Villa’s U.S. pre-season tour) and raised $1,000 USD. I thought this was huge. Since then, the N. America Lions Clubs have raised $40,000 USD for Acorns. The Lions Club network is so generous - in donating fantastic auction items as well as bidding high and often every year. Our goal for each annual N. America meet-up is to raise more money than the year before.
We have started awarding an annual “Oak Tree Award” to the NA Lion that donates the single auction item that raises the most money. (In) 2019 Simon Tissington—chair of the San Diego Lions—donated a Jack Grealish signed boot!
All Aston Villa fans around the world owe a huge debt of gratitude to Rick for all his work. We look forward to seeing you all in Toronto, whenever we can make this happen.
Connect with the California Lions!
- Twitter: @avfccalifornia
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