Readers of this blog know that I choose my Villans of the Week from a wide variety of backgrounds, from English expatriates who were taught the lore of the Villa at their fathers’ knees, to American newbies still learning the songs. (All of them, though, based in North America like me.) I’m interested in exploring different fans’ experiences, and I continue to be amazed at how different those experiences can be. Mike Reed’s life story couldn’t be more different from my own, and yet his experience of being welcomed into the fold—and his pleasure at meeting so many more fans in Chicago last August—mirrors mine perfectly. Read on and get to know the chairman of the newly formed Illinois Lions.
The Starting Eleven
Where were you born, where do you live now, and what do you do for a living?
I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1964, but moved to Torrance, California (birthplace of AYSO), when I was 5, so that’s where I consider “home.” From the age of 18 on, I’ve been a traveler: 4 years at West Point, 5 more years in the U.S. Army (Ft. Benning, Georgia, and Schweinfurt, West Germany), back to Los Angeles, Kansas City, Cincinnati, and now Chicago. I live in the far, far west suburbs (if you can still call them that), in Geneva, Illinois. I’ve been there for a little over 7 years now, with my wife of 24 years, Maureen, and my two children, Travis and Olivia, both students at Northern Illinois University.
My vocation has been as varied as my travels. I started as an Infantry Lieutenant in the Army, and, when I got out shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I fell back on my training as a mechanical engineer and began work in the power industry. I’ve been involved with designing, building, starting up, and operating power plants for more than twenty years. It’s taken me all over the world—in addition to the U.S. and Canada, I’ve been able to work in Hong Kong, Nigeria, and even Iraq . . . nary a dull moment. I’m currently the manager of analytical services for Instep Software, where we provide online condition monitoring to utilities, enabling them to avoid failures by detecting them before they occur. It allows me to still get out into the power plants while staying rooted around my home base.
How and when did you choose Villa?
I’m a recent disciple of the Villa, having not been committed to them until a few years ago. I’d always been much more interested in playing soccer than watching it, and never really became a “fan” until well into my thirties. I was a kid back in the early 1970s when soccer in the U.S. had its first big growth spurt as a mainstream sport for kids to play. At the time, you might be able to see a “foreign” competition called the World Cup, and Pele was the only universally known name (he being the “Thrill of Victory” bicycle-kick guy on ABC’s Wide World of Sports intro). On PBS, on Saturdays, you could get a condensed match on “Soccer Made in Germany,” so the name Franz Beckenbauer was one of the few I knew. My dad signed me up for AYSO, and I was happy to see that I got assigned number 5. I recognized that as the same number that Beckenbauer wore, and, given a choice, I’ve worn it ever since.
I’m not gifted with natural soccer talent, so I’ve always had to work to be competitive in the game—but that effort has been rewarded many times over. The sport has been a universal passport and common language all over the world in my travels. I’ve been able to play on four continents: here, in the U.S.; in Germany, where I played for our military community squad as well as for the town I lived in, which had its own amateur sporting club (but some of the best fields I’ve ever played on); on a dirt field in Nigeria; and even between two buildings while wearing a flak jacket with some of our Iraqi security guards north of Baghdad. Even if we couldn’t speak the same language, soccer was our common tongue.
Back to how I became a fan: in my mid-30s I captained a team in a Kansas City league organized with players at the company I worked at (B&V Dynamo). As an added plus, we had a coach, one who probably taught me more about soccer in a half-dozen years than I’d learned in my whole life, and that transformed me from just being a player of the game to one who now “grokked” it. As such, I had to watch more—the only “real” match I’d seen was during the 1994 World Cup (Bulgaria playing Sweden for third place in the Rose Bowl). The only local opportunity was the fledgling Kansas City Wiz(ards) of the MLS, now known as Sporting KC. I also tried to watch “big league” soccer, but that seemed to be limited to what I could catch on Univision, off-hours on ESPN, or whatnot. I did take an interest in Glasgow Rangers of the Scottish Leagues—partially due to the name (as I’m a former Army Ranger), and also because of the story I’d read about the Wizards’ midfielder Mo Johnston and his controversial stint as the first Catholic (and former Celtic) to play for Rangers in the modern era.
There were no credentials tests, no stand-offish behavior, no small cliques—I was wearing a Villa jersey, and I was immediately accepted. It was then, and over the ensuing weekend, that I knew that I’d chosen, or been chosen by, the right club.
As for the Premier League, they were on my radar, but mainly the “big four” squads . . . along with their annoying fans that reminded me of your average New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys follower . . . ugh. After getting to Chicago and back into playing soccer again, I also noticed that there was increased coverage of the BPL on Fox Sports, so I decided to check it out more, and that’s when I was drawn to Aston Villa. Some of the reasons I liked them were trivial (I liked the uniform colors, they weren’t a “bandwagon” team, it was a cool sounding name), but others were a bit deeper. I noticed the similarity with their current plight (a team steeped in tradition, with glory in the past, but struggling to regain the heights in the modern era), which paralleled my alma mater’s (American) football team (Army’s three National Championships & Heismans were back in the 1940s and ’50s), not to mention the Chicago Cubs; the similarity of Chicago (the Second City) to Birmingham, and so on.
I started watching the players as well, and noticed that they seemed to just work harder than the star-studded ManUre and Liverpool squads. So, as a hard-headed individual, I said that this team was to be the one I would follow—and, once I made up my mind, I jumped with both feet into the deep end. Or should I say, Holte End?
What was your happiest moment as a Villa supporter?
Game-wise, it was probably watching the 6-1 thrashing of Sunderland last year, as it was the point where I felt I could exhale, and believe I would still be supporting a team that was playing in the Premiership in 2013-14. But, really, I’d have to say it was the day I finally met more Villa supporters face-to-face. That was on the field about half an hour prior to playing the friendly against the Globe Pub team in Chicago last August. What made it so great a moment was that it felt like I was a distant relative who had just been discovered, and welcomed to the ‘family reunion’ as a full-fledged member of the family who had been there all the time. There were no credentials tests, no stand-offish behavior, no small cliques—I was wearing a Villa jersey, and I was immediately accepted. It was then, and over the ensuing weekend, that I knew that I’d chosen, or been chosen by, the right club.
What was your most painful moment?
One that I spent in solitude, watching a the fourth-round FA Cup match against Arsenal. This was just after I’d committed myself as a Villa supporter, and I was on Cloud Nine, having not only found an internet feed to watch, but seeing Villa go up 2-0 in the first half—only to be jobbed with two PKs, losing 3-2 in the end to the Gooners. That said, I don’t tend to get down that much after a match, especially if it was watched in good company.
Which team would you most like to see Villa beat this year?
So many to choose from. Well, since we’ve already beaten Arsenal (that’s one down), I’d say Liverpool, just to wipe that stupid smirk off of Suarez’ mug. Shutting up Mourinho and Chelski wouldn’t be bad, either.
Who is your favorite player on the current squad?
Gabby Gabby Gabby Gabby Gabby Agbonlahor. He’s fast as f**k. He’s also the hardest working player I’ve seen on the field, each and every time he’s out there. A one-franchise guy, loyal, and a joy to watch. As he goes, so goes the Villa, in my mind.
Who is your favorite player of all time?
I’m going to limit this to the players I’ve actually seen play live, so that rules out a lot that I’ve seen in videos (such as Paul McGrath) . . . so I’ll nominate Richard Dunne. He’s no longer with the squad, and, unfortunately, was kept out all last season due to injury, but was an absolute beast when he was on the field. He also wears #5, which I noted before was my jersey number. I really think that the shakiness our defense had last year, and to some extent this, is due to not having the presence that a big guy like him provided (I’m hoping that Okore, also #5, will be able to provide that when he returns).
Two examples stand out in my mind: one being his header for the opening goal against Arsenal in the FA match mentioned above, the other being his collision with Joe Hart that gave him a broken collarbone. He did have that unfortunate record of own goals, but I’d put that down to selling out over 110% on the field each and every time. Another interesting fact is that he left a big squad (Man City) while still a productive player to play for Villa—something that’s increasingly rare. It usually happens the other way around.
What are your favorite sources for Villa news?
Mostly the internet: the official Villa site, the Birmingham Mail site, and the various Facebook pages of the supporters’ clubs. Pretty much any happening news with the team will be posted on one of those places.
Rate yourself as a fan. What are your best and worst qualities?
I’d say (humbly) “above center of mass” . . . my best quality is unbridled optimism, often in spite of the facts. While I remain grounded in the reality that we’re often the underdogs when playing one of the top clubs, I still don’t count us out until the match is over. I’ve seen too many upsets in “sure thing” games in my life to think that any result is a predetermined loss. Even when the breaks are going bad, I’ll usually switch over to gallows humor or light sarcasm rather than anger at the events/players/managers/refs . . . .
Worst quality? Hmmm. Well, I feel I haven’t yet earned the full “Villa Fan” status that I’ve said above was freely given—I’m still a newbie when it comes to this. I feel the need to serve some years in the trenches avidly following the squad, learning more of the team’s history and meeting more folks who are the “grognards” of Villa fandom. That’s why I’ve jumped in whole hog—to make up for lost time. I know that I’m already accepted into this family of fans, but personally want to be able to contribute more.
Where do you usually watch games?
I try to make it out to The Globe in Chicago as much as possible or practical (and, sometimes, even it’s not practical). It’s a bit of a haul for me, nearly 50 miles each way, but the atmosphere and camaraderie is worth the effort. Definitely beats watching it on the phone during breaks in the office, or in my basement with only my cats as company. With Simon Leach’s help (and blessing), I’ve set up the (Northern) Illinois chapter of the AVSC, but at the moment I’m “interviewing” potential venues to find one suitable to host viewings out here in the Tri-Cities & Far West suburbs. That will probably kick into high gear with the new year and the second half of the season, as the holidays work against starting it right now. A Facebook page is forthcoming . . . .
What are you usually drinking?
My adult beverage of choice is a nice single-malt Scotch, but on game days (and especially at the Globe), you’ll find me drinking a draft Three Floyd’s “Robert the Bruce” Scotch Ale, or if that’s not available, a “Hobgoblin.” A bottle of “Robert” is my equivalent of the rally monkey—you saw the magic it brought out against Cardiff a few weeks back. (Sadly missing at Sunderland, alas.)
If you could poach any player currently playing for another team, and bring them to Villa, who would that be?
Looking at our team’s strengths and weaknesses, I’d definitely choose a midfielder. Someone who could control the flow of play, fit into Lambert’s philosophy, and click with his teammates—whether a veteran or a wunderkind. Given that, I would probably look at Steven Gerrard of Liverpool first. He’s one of the most complete midfielders in the league, and recently he’s been playing farther back, right in the area where Villa is currently the weakest. Of course, at 33, he may be too old for this squad . . . if Lambert wants to stick with the youth movement, then Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal could fill the bill.
Special mention goes out to one more possibilit, and this wouldn’t be ‘fantasy’ as above, but a distinct possibility of a January transfer window loan-to-hire type move—and here my patriotic slip is showing . . . Michael Bradley. Yes, he had a brief stint on loan under McLeish, and I think that letting him go was a mistake. Playing under Jurgen Klinsmann on the U.S. National Team, and on AS Roma, he has really developed a solid form. Indeed, the U.S.’ recent rough spot was as a result of his not being on the field due to injury. Only 24, so he fits in with the other players, and should be right at home in Birmingham. This is the one move I’m hoping is not just wishful thinking, but can be reality. We have enough strikers!