Brummie Simon Leach on living in Chicago and Aston Villa

Brummie Simon Leach on living in Chicago and Aston Villa
Simon Leach and girlfriend Cat at Villa Park

Being from Birmingham myself, it was only fitting that I’d eventually QnA someone with roots from the city itself. Simon Leach is that guy!

Living in Chicago for almost a decade, he tells me of his experiences living in the city, places of interests that we should check out, and his love for the claret and blue, soccer club Aston Villa.

Hey Simon, please tell us a bit about yourself?

I consider myself to be 65% English, 30% American and 5% Chinese, although my heritage as far as I know is all English. The 30% American comes from the fact that I have now lived this side of the pond for 14 of my 45 years, and my friends back home like to pick up on the fact that I have picked up on way too much American dialect to be pure English any more.

The 5% Chinese is due to the fact that I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in Asia through business travel, racking up over 2 years in the country over 50+ visits.

How did you come about moving to Chicago?

Perseverance really. I had wanted to move here for a long time, and one day I applied for a job with Motorola in Swindon, mainly because I believed being a large Chicago based global company, I would have opportunities to travel and possible even live in the US.

Most days I would speak to my colleagues in the US, I would bug them and ask them if they had any opportunities to move over here, and one day, after close to 5 years with Motorola, an opportunity presented itself. One of my colleagues was moving to a new position, and she recommended me to be her replacement. The job was posted on our internal website. I was told to apply and immediately it was taken off the website. I was the only applicant, so I got a feeling I may be packing my bags (and my life) and heading to Chicago. I was right. That was at the end of 1999 and I moved over on January 4th, 2000.

Is the deep dish pizza really good?

It is REALLY good, but you have to like cheese, and you have to have a big appetite. So often I see “tourists” in a deep dish restaurant order a large pizza for two, and they are lucky if they eat 4 slices between them. My girlfriend and I always go for a small now, but sometimes we will kick it up and order a medium, and have the leftovers cold the next day (Trust me it tastes even better that way).

My favorite food that Chicago is famous for though is the Hot Dog. There is a real divide in the city as to how this simple food is prepared, and as always, the North Side gets it right. The South Side has a simple steamed bun, the “dog” and ketchup and that’s pretty much it. On the North Side we like to dress our “Dogs” with mustard, relish, onion, tomatoes, kosher pickles, sport peppers & celery salt in a poppy seed bun. The best place to sample this wonderful food is Portillo’s. Not only do they do the best “Dog” in Chicagoland, they were also founded in Villa Park, Illinois, so they have that extra bonus for any Aston Villa fans 🙂

Having lived in Chicago for a decade, what places of interest would you recommend to fellow Brummies?

For those that are desperate to see some football (soccer), I would have to say take a visit to The Globe Pub. It recently won the best Sports Bar in America from one of the leading industry publications. It is the home to the Chicago Villans (we have an active group of 20+), and a number of other Premier League teams. It is not like UK football bars in that everyone (typically) gets along and everyone is welcome in the bar whatever colors you are wearing, but with 3 separate bar areas, and probably in excess of 30 large TV screens, it is definitely the place to catch a game.

If you want a panoramic view of Chicago, most people will head to the Willis Tower (Chicagoans still call it the Sears Tower despite its recent name change), but I would say avoid the lines there and head to the Hancock Building. The views from the Signature Room at the 95th floor are equally impressive and entrance is free and often times a lot shorter lines. It is reputed that the best view in the whole of Chicago is from the ladies toilets in the Signature room, but I have not yet witnessed it. The men’s toilets regrettably do not have windows.

Another option for views of the city is a boat tour/dinner cruise. There are many options, but an architectural tour along the river, and a dinner cruise on Lake Michigan (Dinner not lunch as you will get a spectacular view of the city all lit up at night) are worth the money. I would personally recommend The Sea Dog for the architectural tour, and the Odyssey for the dinner cruise (Full disclosure – my girlfriend works for Entertainment Cruises – the company that runs these two options, but in my opinion they are still the best).

The Chicago skyline from the Odyssey taken during a dinner cruise.

The Chicago skyline from the Odyssey taken during a dinner cruise.

For sports fans, a trip to Wrigley Field (celebrating it’s 100 year anniversary in 2014) is a great option. The Cubs suck, but the stadium is about to be redeveloped (so see it before it is modernized) and the crowd are pure Chicago. You will learn a lot about the culture at a game!

There are a lot of breweries in the city if beer is your thing. I recently did a tour of Finch Brewery, and for $12 I got to see their manufacturing process and then stick around to “sample” unlimited amounts of their beer. It was the best $12 I have spent for a long time. Other breweries include Revolution, Goose Island (which I understand is now available in the UK) and Half Acre which are my favorites, but there are many more.

Finally check out other great attractions like Shedd Aquarium, The Field Museum, The Bean (Cloud Gate is the official name) at Millennium Park, The Art Institute, Museum of Science and Industry, Kingston Mines, Buddy Guys & B.L.U.E.S Chicago for great Blues Music, Michigan Avenue for shopping, Lincoln Park Zoo (it is free and right in the city), the plethora of world class theaters. If you want to just chill out, we have miles of sandy beaches on the door step on Lake Michigan. I could go on and on. There truly is so much to do here.

What do you love about the city? What do you miss about living in England?

Most of what I wrote above is what I love about this city. I still am finding new things to do and see every week. Also, the people here are super friendly, and I have made some great friends in this city. It is also very easy and cheap to get around. Buses and CTA Trains are plentiful and it costs $2.25 to go anywhere in the city. There are also a seemingly endless supply of taxi’s. The weather can be very hot in the summer, but extremely cold in the winter. We had a few days this year where is was close to -50F when you factor in the wind chill, and we get a lot of snow. So if you are heading here between October and March/April, be prepared to wrap up.

I honestly do not miss a great deal about England, although I do love coming back to visit. I miss my brother and friends, and the big one for me is missing seeing Aston Villa play, so my trips back typically take account of when they are playing first, then I fit visiting friends in around that.

You’re a huge fan of soccer club Aston Villa. How did you come to support Villa?

I think a few of my earlier answers may have given away the fact that I have Claret and Blue blood!

I have supported Villa for as long as I can remember. You will hear a lot of Villa fans they did not chose Aston Villa, but Aston Villa chose them, and I think I fall into that category. Despite most of my friends supporting Blues when I was in my formative years, my best friend’s dad was a huge Villa fan and he used to take the two of us to games, and once you have step foot inside Villa Park, and on to the Holte End (it was standing back in those days), and you hear the roar and the passion of those fans, there really was no other team in the Midlands that could ever come close to rivaling them.

I feel honored to be an Aston Villa fan and I feel it is my duty to spread the word about our great club, and those that have taken the time to listen, and understand our history and influence on the game have pretty much all fallen in love with Villa as well.

You’ll be back in Birmingham in May to watch Aston Villa against Hull, and then travel to their away games against Manchester City and Tottenham.

How often do you come back to watch Villa?

Prior to May 2013, I had not been back to the UK for a long time (mainly due to finances), and the last competitive game I had seen Aston Villa play in was the derby against Blues on March 3rd, 2003. To say that was one of my low points as an Aston Villa fan was an understatement. Not only did we lose the game, but the atmosphere was something I never want to witness again.

In 2012, shortly after I had moved back to Chicago from Houston, Aston Villa announced they would be playing a preseason friendly against the Chicago Fire, and I went into full on crazy fan mode and organised a series of events for the fans that were traveling to Chicago to see the game. My efforts were recognized by the Lions Club and I was given a “Significant Achievement” award at the Lions Club awards at the end of the season, and also given the honor of presenting Brad Guzan with the player of the year award at the teams end of season dinner. These things led me to be back in Birmingham for the final home game against Chelsea, my first competitive game for 10 years. I knew I had to be back more often, and returned in February of this year to see the home game against West Ham and away at Cardiff.

Simon Leach presenting Aston Villa goal keeper Brad Guzan with the player of the year award.

Simon Leach presenting Aston Villa goal keeper Brad Guzan with the player of the year award.

Despite the lackluster performances on the field, the atmosphere at the games was as electric as I ever remember. I was adamant I would be back for the final games of the season, along with 13 other North American Villa fans.

My only hope is that by the time I step foot on England’s green and pleasant land again, we are safe from relegation and the fans and players alike can enjoy these final 3 games.

Next year I know I will be back at least once, and who knows, if I find a cheap return flight deal, it may be more often!

How do you feel about Villa’s progress this season? What do you feel the team can do to strengthen for next season?

We came out of the blocks like a rocket beating Arsenal on the opening day, and had some really inspiring results & performances against the likes of Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea, but we also had some very dark days. I think this is due to the inexperience in the team, and although I believe a number of the current squad will fall by the wayside, I think we have a good foundation on which to build.

A few weeks ago the knives were starting to come out and there was a growing “Lambert/Lerner/Faulkner Out” movement, but the results in the last few weeks have led to that dying down somewhat. I was beginning to feel like the lone wolf in some discussions on the various forums I post on, and I wondered whether the fact that I was not closer to Birmingham was protecting me from what was really happening with the club, however the recent releasing of the financial results show we are now in a far better position that we have been for many years, and I have stood strong on my belief that Lerner, Faulkner and Lambert are as good a team as we could hope for here and now. I am keeping my fingers crossed that they know what is needed in the summer transfer window.

Personally I would like to see 3 marquee signings in the 10-15 Million pound price range, with an attacking midfielder being my number one priority.

Tell us about your role with the Chicago Lions?

As the Chairman of the group, I try to build our numbers by searching various social media outlets to see if there are any newcomers to the area that may be Villa fans looking to find others to watch the games with. I send out reminders to our members about game times and our meetings at the Globe Pub, and along with the Chairmen of the other supporters groups in the US, we try to arrange events where we can all get together. Last year we held our first annual North America meet up in Chicago for the weekend of the Arsenal game (50+ Villans attending from all over North America), and we are in the process of organizing our first coordinated “invasion” of B6 for the final games this season, with 13 people currently signed up for the trip. We also like to support Acorns and raised $1600 as a group last year for the charity.

Do you follow the MLS? Who do you support?

I do, but more for the social aspect than the football itself. I am a season ticket holder at the Chicago Fire, but my passion for them does not come close to the same feeling I have for Villa. The football is better than most English people give it credit for though.

With a successful basketball, hockey, football and baseball team, whats the sports culture like in Chicago?

Sport and food is what Chicago is built on. We have had some terrible teams here in recent years (The Blackhawks bucking that trend in the NHL), but Chicagoans will still turn up to watch paint dry if you tell them a Cubs pitcher is doing the painting.

Tickets are not an easy thing to get your hands on in this city and if you want to see The Bears you will not get much change out of $200 for a nose bleed seat.

Simon and Cat at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

Simon and Cat at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs.

What would be your advice for other Brits looking to chase a career in the US?

If you really want to do it, go for it. Personally when I came I knew I was staying, and had no plans to return to the UK, so I immersed myself in the country and the culture. From what I have seen, those that don’t last here and return home are those that come with a “Let’s try it out” viewpoint. If you keep looking back to the UK, you more than likely will move back. Now having said that, I think there is still a lot of positives to coming here and having a fixed contract for say 2 years.

I was lucky in that I had a route into the country with my employer. I think it would be a lot harder if you are out there trying to find an avenue into the country on your own, so another piece of advice is find a company in the UK who could offer you the opportunity to one day move out here.

Lastly, give one reason each for why you are a proud Brummie and Chicagoan.

Brummies and Chicagoans are alike in so many ways, so the reasons I am proud to be both a Brummie and a Chicagoan are pretty much the same. Vibrant cities & great people.

Thank you for your time Simon. I hope the group continues to grow, and save me a cold beer the next time you guys are out at The Globe!

Join the group on Facebook, Aston Villa Supporters Club, Chicago for informative and friendly discussions about the soccer club. Also, pop on over to the Aston Villa Lions Club Website and register to become a member.

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