With the increasing popularity of soccer in the US, I was surprised to read an article featured on the Aston Villa page about the flurry of fans supporting the Birmingham side.
With the English Premier League airing on NBC Sports, there has been an increased interest in the sport and league, and there are quite a few international fan bases in America already.
Normally one would expect those fan bases to consist of teams such as Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal, but the Birmingham club itself has seen a growing fan base from New York, Seattle, California, and Detroit to name a few, thanks to the efforts of the North American AVFC Lions Club.
Chicago itself has its own flock of Villa supporters. Villa fan Keir Graff shares his thoughts and passion for the team which includes celebrity fans such as Tom Hanks and Prince William.
Tell us a bit about yourself Keir?
I was born and raised in Missoula, Montana, and moved to Chicago in 1996 with my wife, Marya—we've been here ever since. We have two sons, ages 7 and 9. I am a writer and have published a handful of books, most recently a novel for adults called The Price of Liberty, and a novel for middle graders called The Other Felix. By day, I am the editor of Booklist Online, a publication of the American Library Association.
How did you come to support Aston Villa?
That's a long story! And, if you want to read the whole thing, you can find it on my blog,American Born Villan. But the shorter version is that I was hooked on watching the Premier League and wished I had a team to root for. It felt very presumptuous to just "choose" a team without any kind of real connection but I found myself drawn to Villa. At the time, under Martin O'Neill, they were playing some pretty exciting soccer (sorry, as an American, I can't quite bring myself to say "football") and they seemed poised to crack the uppermost reaches of the table. But I also liked the idea of supporting a team that I could pay some dues with—pulling on the shirt of a first-place team seems awfully unimaginative. But I certainly hope one day to see Villa win the league again!
How big is the Villa influence in Chicago, especially compared to more commonly supported teams such as Manchester United and Barcelona?
I watched Villa games for several years before I met another fan (the writer Andrew Grant), so it was a fairly lonely pastime. Then my life was changed last August when Andrew told me that the North American supporters' groups would be meeting in Chicago. I played in their friendly against the Globe Pub team and watched the wonderful win against Arsenal in a room packed with singing supporters. Chicago definitely seems to have one of the best supporters' groups in the U.S., and they couldn’t have been more welcoming to me.
That said, Chicago Villans are still scarce. I wear my shirt when I go running on the lakefront, and I can see recognition from other Premier League fans, but the most common shirts tend to be Chelsea, Man United, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona—the usual suspects. I’ve yet to see another Villa shirt outside of a gathering of supporters.
With Aston Villa sitting in the bottom half of the table, how do you feel their season has gone so far?
It's been disappointing, particularly their home form. The wins against Arsenal, Man City, and Southampton were thrilling, and we've given good games to Chelsea and Liverpool. But losing to West Ham, Palace, and Fulham—we’ve lost far too many points in winnable games. That said, at the beginning of the season, I predicted we would finish in the top half of the table, and that is still possible—just. And that would be progress.
Do you feel, with the current manager and the current squad that Villa should be in a better position?
I worked it out this morning and our average league position to date is eleventh place. I know there are a lot of disgruntled fans out there, but I think that, realistically, we're not underperforming too badly given the talent we have. Had we picked up some points in those three games I mentioned, I think a lot of people would be singing a different tune. But the reality is that Lambert hasn't had a lot of money to spend due some poor financial decisions made by his predecessor. It is so hard to be patient, but I think Lambert deserves one more season to make his case. Changing managers and tactics every year or two is no way to run a club.
Where do you feel Villa are strong and what areas do you feel Villa could strengthen?
Honestly, I feel our defense is not too far off. Clark and Baker have improved, and Vlaar, though far from perfect, really steadies things. Our record with him is far better than without him. Bertrand has been impressive for the most part, too. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could keep him? Right back remains a problem—I like Bacuna as a player, but he is not a right back, at least not yet.
I tend to think midfield is the most important area, and that's where we could use improvement. Delph has matured quite a bit and I think Albrighton could provide some pace and attack on the right if he were given more starts. I'm not a fan of El Ahmadi, though. I think we need a really good defensive midfielder and a good, creative playmaker—but the latter are so hard to find. More creativity from the whole team would be helpful!
On attack, Gabby always causes problems, and Benteke, if we can keep him, will show real quality again. But will we keep him? I've always liked Weimann, and his work rate can't be faulted, but I'm reluctantly conceding that he is not a long-term solution for us. His final touch can be lacking, and we just need more goals from that position.
Are there players you would like Villa to sign?
Yes, but they're mostly players I can't imagine us paying for. And I've never been one for scouting players from other leagues. I was disappointed that Michael Bradley didn't remain at Villa. I always thought he could have been a great player for us—some steel in the midfield—and I felt proven right when he did well at Roma. Sadly, now he'll be competing with the Chicago Fire as a member of Toronto FC.
Can you see Villa regaining their glory days in the near future?
Not in the near future. I really think teams need to spend so much to put themselves in the running for Champions League spots, and Randy Lerner clearly doesn't spend money like a Saudi sheikh or a Russian oligarch. On the other hand, I don't pine for a new owner. If the team goes up for sale, who knows who would buy them? Cardiff and Hull supporters can tell us cautionary tales. I think a more realistic goal in the near future is to target the Europa League. I see a team like Everton and their consistent finishes and I feel we should be there. And, honestly, how can a team like Southampton be so much stronger than us? But, wherever we finish, I will continue to support the team. I do believe that better days lie ahead.
Chicagoan Brad Guzan is the main goalkeeper for Villa, and Eric Lichaj has also played as a defender before departing for Nottingham Forest. Having had two hometown players in the team, how well do you feel they represented Chicago?
I couldn't be happier with Guzan's performance. He is an excellent goalkeeper with many good years ahead of him. I know people like to credit the goalscorers, but Guzan was very much a part of the reason we didn't get relegated! And I really wanted it to work out for Lichaj, and I thought he had some good games, but I'm not sure he's really top-flight material. He didn't get too much time to make his case, but sometimes that's just the way it is.
As a member of the Chicago Lions, you meet up with the rest of the members at the Globe pub. Talk us through regular game day for a Chicagoan Villa fan.
After watching games alone for so many years, I am always excited to meet up with the group at the Globe. In spring and fall, my own coaching duties often interfere, but I go whenever I can. Fortunately, I’m just a bus ride and a ten-minute walk away. For the earliest games, I typically drink coffee during the first half and have a beer or two during the second half. I have to go back home to my kids afterward so I usually don't overdo it. But, if it’s a noontime game and there’s a victory to celebrate, all bets are off! I do love the Globe's "full English breakfast" with a liberal splash of HP sauce. (My older son has come with me a couple of times and he likes it, too!) Because of my schedule, I often arrive just before kickoff and leave not too long after the final whistle, but it still means so much to watch the group with the other supporters. Just a top-notch group of people.
Tell us a bit more about your group/club, Chicago Lions. How many members are there? Are there regular meet ups?
I'm not sure how many people have signed up as official members, but the turnout is always very good, in my opinion. I remember one game where there were only three of us, but most often there will be eight to ten, sometimes even more, always with a good mix of old and new faces. One of the great things about supporting Villa in Chicago is that if you walk into the bar wearing a Villa shirt, you are welcome at our table. If you walk in wearing an Arsenal shirt, you'll see many more of those (the Globe is an Arsenal pub), but you’re not going to be on a first-name basis with everyone.
Nearly all of our time together is at the pub, but there has been at least one boat cruise, there’s been a rumor of a barbecue at Bob’s house (hope you’re reading this, Bob!), and I think we're planning a proper party at the end of this season, too.
Have you visited Villa Park?
Sadly, I have not been to Villa Park! My wife doesn't quite share my enthusiasm for the sport and so I have not yet been able to talk her into a Midlands family vacation. And it seems a bit selfish to leave her behind with the kids. But I will go, and sooner than later. I can't wait!
Who are your favorite Villa players - past and present.
I don’t have as much history with the team, so I don’t get to say Paul McGrath and Olof Mellberg, never mind Gary Shaw! I used to like Ashley Young quite a bit when he was racing down the wing and sending in crosses for the likes of John Carew. Now that he's graduated from the Manchester Diving School, not so much. But always—Gabby Gabby Gabby Agbonlahor! And Brad Guzan, of course.
What is your favorite Villa memory?
I can point to a handful of games that were thrilling to watch, but I have to pick the 3-1 away win at Arsenal on August 17, 2013. Never had as much fun watching a game as I did in a room PACKED with singing Villans. The whole weekend was a blast. And, ultimately, that’s the best part of the deal—the team doesn’t always live up to expectations, but the supporters almost always do.
You coach two youth teams called Tigers and Dark Knights. Please tell us more about the teams and your experiences coaching them.
I've been coaching both my sons' AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) teams since they were old enough to play. I love spending time outdoors with the kids, and I love the challenges of coaching—I probably overdo the tactical planning given the unpredictability of 6-, 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds, but I really can't help myself. I love to see them grow and succeed. My one gripe with the AYSO system is that you get an entirely new group of kids each year. So, at exactly the time you've really learned their strengths and weaknesses and how to make them better, they're taken away from you and you start over from scratch. But I still love it and am proud to say my kids make real contributions to their teams. Cosmo (age 7) is his team's leading scorer and Felix (age 9) can play anywhere on the field—helping his team remain undefeated last fall.
Thank you for your time Keir! I hope Aston Villa gain more fans in Chicago, and more to cheer with at the Globe Pub! Check out Keir's blog devoted to Aston Villa by clicking here.
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