American Born Villan

Aston Villa, From Chicago to the Holte End of the World


Tim Howard

Villan of the Week: Simon Tissington

Simon Tissington: Top Bloke, Top of the League
Simon Tissington: Top Bloke, Top of the League

I met Simon Tissington last August in Chicago when, as goalkeeper for the North American Villans, he impressed as one of the fittest and most talented players on the North American Villans starting 11. (His shaven-headed style prompted me to dub him “Littlest Brad” in my account of the game—though his dodgy ‘stache below calls to mind a certain badass called Begbie in a movie called Trainspotting . . . you may have heard of it.) The following day, when his bet on the Arsenal game paid off handsomely, he treated everyone wearing a Villa shirt to a pint of Stella. Next time, the drinks are on me, Simon!

The Starting Eleven

Where were you born, where do you live now, and what do you do for a living?

I was born in Nottingham but grew up in Gloucester. Once I moved out of home, I lived in Edgbaston, Birmingham. I came to sunny San Diego 20 years ago on what was supposed to be a 4- or 5-month backpacking visit and have been here ever since! I now co-own a property disaster restoration company and have been in the industry for 17 years.

How and when did you choose Villa?

Villa officially chose me around 1980 when I was 10 years old. I remember seeing Tony Morley score the goal of the season against Everton in the 1980-81 season, and from that point on, I was Villa through and through. After they won the league that year there was no turning back.

What was your happiest moment as a Villa supporter?

Happiest moment? Duh! Watching Villa win the European Cup in 1982!!! I remember being allowed to stay up late to watch the end of the match and then running around the house in my pajamas at the final whistle! I don’t think I slept a wink that night I was buzzing so hard from the excitement!

What was your most painful moment?

The most painful moment was seeing us get relegated in 1987. Fortunately, it didn’t last long as we bounced straight back up the next year. I have to admit that I did have a few flashbacks towards the end of last season before we pulled ourselves out of danger!

Which team would you most like to see Villa beat this year?

I want to see us get drawn against Birmingham City in the FA Cup and rip them apart! As far as Premiership competition, probably West Brom, due to the derby element and the fact that their fans keep on insisting that they are the best team in the Midlands right now. Obsessed with the Villa they are!!!

Who is your favorite player on the current squad?

Brad GuzanI’ve played the position of goalkeeper since I was about seven years old, so I tend to watch the keepers more than most. I think Brad Guzan is a fantastic keeper and is not even close to realizing his full potential. I watched him when he played for Chivas U.S.A. and he has come on in leaps and bounds. I believe he is going to push Tim Howard all the way for the U.S. national team’s #1 shirt in Brazil. I also think Fabian Delph is going to be one to watch for the future.

Who is your favorite player of all time?

My favorite player of all time has to be Peter Withe, mainly because of THAT goal in ’82. I can still see the ball bobbling up unpredictably in the six yard box and bouncing off his shin guard into the back of the net. Nigel Spink is a close second. His performance coming in cold from the bench after 10 minutes is legendary.

What are your favorite sources for Villa news?

The usual: The official AVFC website, Facebook forums, Birmingham newpaper websites. I really need to get up to speed with this Twitter thing, though. I understand it’s also a great way to keep up to date on the latest news.

Rate yourself as a fan. What are your best and worst qualities?

What else do you need for a weekend trip to Chicago?
What else do you need for a weekend trip to Chicago?

Rate myself? Completely bonkers for the Villa! I’ll do whatever it takes to watch when they are playing. I recently put NBC’s streaming service to good use to watch the Liverpool match in a church at a friend’s wedding. It could have been a little awkward if we had netted in that game! My worst quality is that I tend to dwell on poor performances for way to long. I’ve been told that I can become quite the grump after a loss.

Where do you usually watch games?

I’ll watch wherever I have to. Usually, if they are showing the game live, you’ll find me at Shakespeare’s Pub in San Diego. We have small but dedicated group of Villans that congregate on a regular basis and I am always recruiting (especially Yanks that are either new to the sport or have been sitting on the fence, undecided about where their allegiance should lie). We’ve recently discovered the Griffin Pub in San Diego, too: they screened last week’s game on their 16-foot HD screen. This may just move them into the number-one spot for future viewing. I try to get back to Brum as much as I can to take in a game live. [Editor’s note: Simon was in the Holte End last weekend for the Cardiff game, singing his heart out!]

What are you usually drinking?

The press conference is about to begin
The press conference is about to begin

Depends if it’s a “quality” or “quantity” type of occasion! If its “quality” then I’ll enjoy one of the many excellent IPAs that are brewed locally here in the San Diego area. If it’s “quantity,” then the “wife beater” (Stella) is my go-to beer as anybody that attended the Chicago meetup will attest! I’m also not afraid to buy every Villa fan in the pub a beer if I hit a nice little bet on the Claret & Blue.

Extra Time

Doctor Frankenstein, I presume: make the perfect player out of three or more.

An All-Access Pass to Villa Park
An All-Access Pass to Villa Park

Hmmm . . . Gabby’s pace, Gareth Barry for his midfield presence, Benteke for his physicality and aerial abilities, Ashley Young for his wicked right footed service into the box (even though he’s crap for United now), and John Carew for one of the best songs ever!

Villan of the Week: David Simpson

David Simpson and family
David Simpson and family in Philadelphia after the preseason game in 2012

Today’s Villan You Should Know is David Simpson, a Brit who has been living in Richmond, Virginia—and spreading the gospel of the claret and blue there—since 2001. He is also a devoted father, as you’ll see below, who has taken all necessary measures to ensure his children won’t have their heads turned by some sheikh- or oligarch-owned glamour club! David is also chairman of the Richmond 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 Pontypool, Wales, while my mum was visiting her aunt. I grew up an Army brat living in Dorset, Hampshire, West Germany, and then eventually Chepstow in South Wales. After getting out of college and trying my hand at a variety of careers I ended up with a job promotion and moved to Richmond, Virginia in 2001 with my wife and three-year-old son. I worked with Merrill Lynch until two years ago, when I made the switch over the street to Morgan Stanley. I manage investments and provide financial advice to clients up and down the East Coast. As far as I am aware, I am the only Brit in my region doing this type of work.

How and when did you choose Villa?

Growing up in Chepstow, we had very little access to any quality football—it was mainly rugby. I went to Birmingham Polytechnic in 1985 and lived in Perry Common above a Spar shop with five other students, one of whom was a good mate from school. One Saturday, a bunch of us went to see Villa play Everton. Drinking in the Wellhead Tavern (I think that was the name back in the day) at the Poly, then walking down to the ground with the rest of the Claret and Blue Army, then standing up in the Holte End, singing songs and flowing with the crowd when we scored, was an experience like no other. I was hooked. After graduating and moving around the UK with my career I would still find myself drawn back to Villa. I have travelled from many a point wide and far to see them play, multiple times coming back from the U.S. for long weekends. It just gets into your blood!

What was your happiest moment as a Villa supporter?

Cameron and Olivia Simpson
Cameron and Olivia at Villa Park (they’re a little bit older now!)

Taking my kids [to Villa Park] when they were little (Cameron is now 15 and Olivia is 11) and seeing the joy on their faces when they got into the atmosphere is just something you cannot buy. I was worried about them following the so-called “big teams,” so I took both kids at an early age. Ironically Cameron’s first game was also against Everton, when he was three years old!

Two moments from games though: beating Manchester United on Boxing Day at Villa Park in the early 1990s—I think it was 3-0—and then being at Sheffield Wednesday to witness the great second-half comeback during Ron Atkinson’s first game in charge (again back in the early 1990s). Two down at halftime and we won 3-2. That was the game where the “Big Fat Ron’s Claret and Blue Army” was first sung.

What was your most painful moment?

At the Carling Cup Final
Smiles before a tough result: at the Carling Cup Final

It has to be the Carling Cup defeat to Man United. It was my birthday and Cameron and I had flown in from the U.S., and my mate from college and his son had flown in from Switzerland. I had on a Villa shirt with Milner on the back and Cameron had Young on his. We should have had a penalty for the foul on Gabby early on and I think we would then have been 2 up, but instead the ref did the usual and gave the decisions Man United’s way. I guess the Milner and Young shirt were bad omens as they both moved on soon after!

What team would you most like to see Villa beat this year?

Arsenal 1 - Villa 3It was nice seeing us beat Arsenal on the first day of the season, but I always look to games like Man United and Liverpool. We were there last December when we beat Liverpool at Anfield 3-1, that’s always a sweet victory.

Who is your favorite player on the current squad?

Has to be Gabby for being Villa through and through, but I really like the way Guzan has fought for and secured his place at the Villa and seems to be committed to the club. He should be the U.S.A. number 1 ahead of Tim Howard—it’s a shame he’s not English!

Who is your favorite player of all time?

Paul McGrathAt the Villa it has to been Paul McGrath. Considering Big Ron took him from Man United and he was supposed to be done at that stage, he barely trained during the week, yet on a Saturday he was immense. Also the “Ew Ah Paul McGrath” song is a classic! Favorite player ever from anywhere—I spent four years living in West Germany in the 1970s, and would have loved to have seen Beckenbauer and Cruyff at a live game but never had the chance. The best, probably Cruyff.

What are your favorite sources for Villa news?

I check the Villa web site every day and Facebook from the Villa groups. It’s sad but I read the BBC website and the Daily Mail online at lunchtime to get all the gossip from around the league and I normally then follow links to the Birmingham Evening Mail.

Rate yourself as a fan. What are your best and worst qualities?

There are two types of fan in my book. Fans that can go to games and will go and fans that for whatever reason cannot go yet will do whatever they can to know how we are doing. At kickoff time, usually on a Saturday at 3 p.m. in the UK, it doesn’t matter where I am or what I am doing, somehow I will know who’s in the team and how we are doing. For the next 90 minutes all I will think about is that game going on at Villa Park or wherever we may be playing. I am completely on edge until I get the result.

With Gareth Barry in Columbus (2009)
With Gareth Barry in Columbus (2009)

Best quality is my dedication to all things Villa. Many of my American friends and colleagues have never heard of Aston Villa and I am constantly asked about my car’s license plate: A V F C 7. I am then able to articulate why Villa and why they should also follow the Villa and stop following the herd and find a real club to support. Worst quality as a fan is my after game moments following a defeat. If we play badly and lose I can take that, but when we play well and just can’t seem to win, then I am a pain to live with for a few days after.

Where do you usually watch games?

I get almost every game on the new NBC sports channel on TV, so I will watch at home with my kids, or I watch them in the local pub Keagan’s with some other footy fans. There are very few Villa fans in Richmond, but I am spreading the gospel.

What are you usually drinking?

Growing up in the West Country in the UK I got a taste for Cider. There are now multiple ciders available to me in Richmond and my favorite is Bold Rock, brewed in Virginia, it’s better than Strongbow!

Extra Time

Rewriting the past: if you could go back and change one thing, anything, in Aston Villa’s history, what would if be?

David PlattWe should never have sold David Platt. At the time he was one of the best midfielders in the country. Also I wish Paul McGrath had spent his whole career at Villa and that we would have had him for far longer than we did.

Finally, I have to say I have travelled greatly across Europe and the USA and met many football fans. When you are in some far-off, distant place and you run into someone in a bar and they turn out to be a Villa fan also, you know you have a friend for life. There is a bonding that we all have, we all run deep claret and blue.


Aston Villa 0 – Everton 2: Too Much F—ing Perspective

Aston Villa 0 – Everton 2: Click here for highlights–er, Lowlights

Tim HowardAnother bright start—a bright start that, in this case, lasted about an hour—followed by another home loss. (According to Soccernomics, playing at home is statistically good for a one-goal advantage, so apparently we avoided an 0-3 humiliation.) Another game in which we had chances we failed to finish—although I can only shake my head at Tim Howard’s save of Benteke’s penalty. Benteke could arguably have hit it harder but it certainly was well placed. And against ANY OTHER TEAM I would have been pumping my fists just like the U.S.A.’s number-one keeper after he made the save.


Alex McLeishSo we lost a game in which we played well, which feels like some measure of progress compared to seasons past in which we were so uninspired, so abject, that it was hard to think of Villa as “my team.” (And yes, I’m looking at you, McLeish.) But there are no points for if-only.

There’s a scene in Spinal Tap that offers one of my favorite throw-away lines of all time. Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls are visiting Elvis’ grave:

St. Hubbins: Well, this is thoroughly depressing.
Tufnel: Well, it really puts perspective on things though, doesn’t it?
St. Hubbins: Well, it’s too much. There’s too much fucking perspective, now.

For the rest of Saturday, I felt depressed by the perspective the game had put on things. Losing to Everton, a team with a history of drawing or losing at Villa Park, painfully illustrates the difference between the two sides’ start to the season. You could argue that we should be an Everton, a well-managed, mid-budget team perpetually lurking around the middle of the top half of the table. You could argue that we will be—but don’t try that this week.

Sunday I felt a bit better. I tried to broaden my perspective to include the whole Premier League, not just two teams. Now, call me crazy, but I’ve been basically optimistic all season. I saw bright spots even in our 0-4 loss to Tottenham in the League Cup. Yes, we lost soundly, but I still held on to the sense that we were better than the scoreline showed. I kept my head up when they beat us again 0-2. Hey, they’re a side with Champions League ambitions and money to burn after selling Gareth Bale to Los Blancos (and, while he’s shooting blanks, it’s Andre Villas-Boas who’s laughing all the way to the bank).

Andreas Weimann scratchingLosing at home by two goals to Everton was, I’ll admit it, harder to take. It’s a game we certainly could have won, and, given the teams’ head-to-head history, I expected at least a draw.


Perspective. Let’s take a big step back. Then another. Aaaaaand another—careful, you just spilled that guy’s drink.

We’re nine games in. In league play, we’ve faced: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Newcastle, Norwich, Manchester City, Hull, Tottenham, and Everton. Our first three opponents currently occupy the first three spots in the table (interestingly, in that very order). And SEVEN of those nine are currently in the top half.

You could argue that they’re in the top half with our help, but still: no one would argue that Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City, Tottenham, and Everton won’t finish in the top half at the season’s end. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t we have just 6 points after 9 games last year—and without having played the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, or Man City?

So we’ve got 10 points. November’s schedule includes West Ham (currently 15th), Cardiff (currently 16th), West Brom (12th), and Sunderland (19th with a bullet!). Nothing is certain. But if the team stays mentally strong, results are bound to improve. Some of those chances are bound to fall. Benteke, getting fitter, will find his game. And Luna might even find his way back to his position when it counts.

That said, if we don’t pick up at least seven points from the next four games, then I’ll be starting to worry, too.

Norwich 0 – Aston Villa 1: Ugly Win, Beautiful Three Points

True, Paul Lambert’s team selection was a bit of a surprise. But does anyone else remember the days when Martin O’Neill’s squad sheet could have been chiseled in stone, so rarely did it change? When, late in the season, with the players running on fumes, he still acted as though he had no one he could trust to bring in off the bench? There may be such a thing as being too willing to flirt with new lineups, but then again, it seems to be working out well for Jurgen Klinsmann and the USMNT. So I, for one, am willing to trust our skipper.

For the first five minutes, Villa looked by far the better team. If I remember the sequence right, Weimann got off one decent shot and one great shot that, sadly, hit the post. I feel terrible for the guy: he runs like a greyhound and works like a . . . well, another kind of dog, and he just deserves more success. Later in the game, when he skied one over the bar, I could sense his growing desperation.

Libor Kozak finds the back of the net
Libor Kozak finds the back of the net

Anyway, in the sixth minute, when Ciaran Clark handled the ball to give away a penalty, I thought, right, here we go again. Dreamtime is over. Back to searching for an equalizer.

And then . . Brad Guzan showed us why he is The Man. I also feel sorry for him, to be on this kind of form in the Tim Howard era. Any other time in history and he’s the starting goalkeeper for the U.S.A.

So the penalty save brought fresh hope, and then Benteke came off injured. Mentally, some Villans are already running scenarios well into the future—well, if he’s out for two or three months, then he won’t leave in the January transfer window, which means we’ve at least still got him this spring, and if he’s out until spring, then do we have him next year?—when Libor Kozak comes on, shoots, is denied, and then is given a second chance by Gabby that he can’t miss.

Libor! Libor! I’m sorry, but it’s a bit too close to Latka, or Balki, or even Borat, though the fact that it has only two syllables does make it easier to chant (poor Ricky van Wolfswinkel).

Anyway, from anticipation to despair to elation to despair to guarded optimism—rapid-fire sequence of emotional zigzags that pretty much sums up what it’s like to follow Villa. And surely this Libor fellow is a fluke? I kept worrying about Benteke on the bench. How could he be smiling? Maybe the smile is a good sign, as is the fact that he clearly didn’t want to leave the field in the first place.

This was the first game since the win over Arsenal that I was able to watch as it happened. Imminent AYSO coaching duties meant that I didn’t have time to get down to the pub and back (and it’s probably not advisable to coach U8s and U10s with beer on my breath), but I wanted that feeling of watching the game with others. And so I opened up my laptop and logged in to Twitter and set Tweetdeck to #AVFC.

The experience was interesting—it’s fun to see the screen light up after saved penalties, injuries, goals, etc.—but distracting, too. I found myself watching the game itself with only half my attention. And, true to the curse of social media, instead of just marveling at whatever dramatic thing I’d just seen, I found myself struggling to say something witty and succinct. The Age of Social Media is the Age of Narcissism: could that yellow card have actually happened if I didn’t find something funny to say about it?

Anyway, I did enjoy seeing clever things from other Tweeps, and appreciated finding some facts and photos along the way. But back to the game. Villa continued to look good on the counter, and there were moments where I felt that old optimism, that old sense that we’re going to run off two or three quick goals and put the game out of reach. And surely we need to, because our defense looks shocking. We’re cursed on the back line, aren’t we? Okore looked as though he would become an important bulwark on a solidifying defense; now, with Vlaar and Clark in center, and a possibly out-of-position Bacuna at right, and Luna at left, we look as though we’re standing on sand that is crumbling away at our feet.

Luna in particular looked shockingly vaporous. Maybe the Arsenal game was a fluke, but I thought then that he looked like a great addition: a fast, athletic back, alert to offensive opportunities, willing to race tirelessly up and down the wing. But how can he play better against Arsenal, Liverpool, and Chelsea than against Norwich? I’m not writing him off yet, but he needs to show more consistency.

And, speaking of bad days at the office: Aleksandar Tonev. After his first long but errant shot, I thought: glad the boy’s got confidence. After the second: maybe a bit too much confidence, but hey, why not? After the half-dozenth long and off-target shot I wanted shake him silly. I’m sure he just wants to impress, and I know Lambert will have a word, but it’s not the debut I would expect from a professional player. Judging from the comments on Twitter, it’s either time to loan Tonev to a team in the second division or cut off both his feet before ceremonially burning him at the stake. He needs time but, of course, we don’t have a large margin for error.

I’ve already gone on too long, so I’ll close by saying this: on Saturday, I didn’t really recognize this team, and it’s not just because of the new faces. We looked haphazard and tentative where, only a few games ago, we looked organized and confident. (Speaking of organization, do you know who we could use in midfield? Michael Bradley. Too bad Villa never had the vision to bring him in for a try. Oh wait, they did? Pity. I guess he’s not good enough for a thirteenth-place team. He just barely managed to find a starting position at a first place team in some place called Italy, after all.)

Hopefully this win will offer some confidence to play our best game again. It was ugly but, for now, those three points are beautiful.

Reasons for Optimism

Tonev is no Benteke, but he might just do the job.

Gabby. No idea why Lambert took him off. He and Guzan were our two most valuable players.

We still look dangerous on the counter. If we can pinch an early lead against teams like Norwich, it will draw them forward, giving us an even better chance of that second goal. And we will need a second, or third, or fourth goal. This clean sheet will be an anomaly this season.

Bradley Edwin “Brad” Guzan

Reasons for Pessimism

Jores Okore is out for the year. Lambert has expressed his faith in Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker. He may be right. History will have fans wondering otherwise.

Christian Benteke. How soon will he be back?

Antonio Luna

Alexander Tonev

A midweek League Cup game at home against Tottenham, a team that is second in the table and second in form. Given that games at Villa Park hardly seem to give us an advantage. I think we’d be extremely lucky to get a good result. (On the other hand, Andre Villas-Boas has just announced that he’ll field a team of reserves, so . . . there goes that unfounded optimism again.)

Choosing Aston Villa (Instead of, Say, a Team That Plays in the Champions League)

I’ll admit it: there was a time, not all that many years ago, when I was scornful of my fellow Americans who wore the shirts of foreign soccer teams. I saw them as pretentious hipsters who, on other days, would be just as likely to wear a T-shirt from a band you’ve never heard of, hoping you will be clueless enough to ask, “Who’s that?” I know you can’t tell someone is American just by looking at him—well, not always—and I know there are plenty of Americans with hereditary ties to certain teams. But how does an otherwise unaffiliated Yank with no particular history just have the balls to pick a team and declare to the world: I am a fan. I follow this team. If you cut me, I will bleed (let’s say, for example) claret and blue.

(For those too impatient to read to the end of this admittedly overlong post, I’ll just say this now: I think I look very comfortable in my 2013-14 Aston Villa home shirt. Even if my wife thinks I look like a dork.)

Vitas Gerulaitis
Vitas Gerulaitis plays from the rough

I grew up not knowing much about team sports, much less being a fan of team sports. I was a child of the 1970s, and my father, an English teacher with curly red hair and wild eyebrows, followed tennis and running. I was a fan, as much as I child could be, of Bjorn Borg and Arthur Ashe. I knew my father despised Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe (and so I did, too, even though I found them fascinating). I knew how to pronounce Vitas Gerulaitis. I was also familiar with the names Sebastian Coe, Frank Shorter, and, later, Alberto Salazar.

This didn’t seem in any way odd to me. I grew up in Montana, a state with no major-league teams, and, at the time, no history of success in college sports. (Times have changed: Go Griz!) I do remember some playground debates as to who played better football, the Vikings, the Steelers, the Raiders, the Dallas Cowboys. And, although I even briefly owned an Oakland Raiders jacket—because I thought the silver and black made me look tough—my credibility as a football fan was undermined by the fact that I had never seen my team play. Football wasn’t watched in my house.

(This reminds me of another playground debate in which, desperate to sound knowledgeable when asked which radio station was the coolest, I named a station based wholly on its call letters: KYSS. After all, KISS was a frightening rock band, right? So wouldn’t KYSS play bad-ass music? Alas, no: “That figures,” sniffed a girl. “I knew you’d like country.” The only radio station heard in my house was KUFM, the local NPR affiliate.)

Years later, as an adult in Chicago, I found myself a neutral observer in many conversations about college sports (how could they possibly have so many colleges and universities east of the Mississippi?), and, naturally, I met a lot of adults who had grown up in places like Pittsburgh, and so had a ready-made slate of teams to support: the Steelers (how nice for them), the Pirates (oh, the pity), and the Penguins (well, they could do worse).

That’s how I had always thought of fandom. Love of a team, if not inherited from your parents, was geographic. And that made sense: if sports are the socially acceptable form of violence, civilized society’s form of battle, then of course we should root for our local teams. Why urge the enemy to attack us? We’re too busy with families, jobs, and bills to go wage actual war on, say, Boston, so we send a delegation of athletes instead. And, because bringing back human trophies is just rude (and where do you put them? does IKEA offer something?), let’s just have Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and the rest of the guys bring back something shiny.

As a determiner of fandom, geography has its limits, of course. Maybe you just don’t want to root for your crummy local team. And, while allegiance to the local athletic enterprise can offer an illuminating sense of shared purpose—or, conversely, illumination from the light of burning cars torched after an important win or loss—it’s pretty generic. I, by virtue of living in a large city with a popular, well-managed team, have earned the right to feel superior to you, the loser, because you dwell in a smaller city and support a team riven by ego and mismanagement. So maybe choice has its virtues, after all.

But I digress. Again. Sorry, but this whole post is going to be one long digression. Villa isn’t playing a meaningful game this week (you weren’t seriously worried about Rotherham, were you?) so I’m taking the time to work some things out.

Anyway, I moved to Chicago and bought into the whole geographic thing. Delighted that I could step out my back door and ride to Wrigley Field on the 22 bus, I became a Cubs fan. (Somebody should have warned me about that, but there you have it—it’s too late now.) When the North Side of Chicago was happy, I was happy. This didn’t last long. When the North Side of Chicago was unhappy, which is the more usual state of things, and why they anesthetize themselves with beer, I had plenty of people with whom to commiserate.

Hristo Stoitchkov shares a moment with Paul Broome
Hristo Stoitchkov shares a moment with Paul Broome

But then I started playing soccer. My cousin Shane, a player and a fan, moved to Chicago and we decided it would be fun to organize a pickup game. We dubbed it the “Bulgarian Football League,” in honor of the legendary Hristo Stoitchkov, then playing with the Chicago Fire, even though there was nothing Bulgarian about our game whatsoever. In a word, we were soft. But we had fun. And we even managed to get an actual Bulgarian to show up, although I think she felt utterly cheated. She was expecting real Bulgarians.

I loved the game and felt that I would have had an excellent chance at being half decent at it, if only I’d been introduced to it twenty years earlier. I loved playing so much that, like our actual Bulgarian, I felt cheated—out of all those years in which I could have been playing.

But, having played a bit, the game began to make more sense to me as a fan. I had watched several World Cups without understanding much more than which was ahead at any given moment. Now I went to Fire games at Soldier Field, and watched them on TV, and then, gradually, as the games became more available on cable, began to watch European soccer. Mainly the Premier League. Where the game was played at a completely different level than it was in the U.S.

I was hooked.

I watched aimlessly for a couple of seasons, just looking for good games. I developed some favorite players, but I didn’t have a team to root for. I began to envy the fans in the stands, whose ecstasy and anguish was obviously so much more fully felt than my casual interest.

I stopped making fun of the guys who wore their team’s shirt around Chicago. Now I envied them and wished I had a team of my own to support. But how do you just . . . choose? Choosing a team struck me as somehow arrogant, like appropriating history and culture and years of joy and pain and agony just by saying, “I’m in!” How dare I? How dare anyone? Surely you have to earn the right to wear the shirt, but how do you do that? Let’s face it, despite all the amazing scientific advances of recent years, there’s just still no way to fit generations of team spirit into an afternoon.

But surely all these other guys weren’t suffering the same paralysis of overanalysis that I was. Screw it, I decided. I’m picking a team.

To my wife, I rationalized the choice thusly: “If I just choose one team, then I won’t be watching so much soccer every weekend. And I’ll still get to see all the other teams in the league play, anyway.”

Who knows? I might even have believed that first sentence.

So who to choose? How to choose? I instantly ruled out Manchester United, Liverpool, and Chelsea. Choosing one of those sides, I reasoned, would be like deciding to become a baseball fan and picking the New York Yankees. Too obvious. And, moreover, when you choose a club with high expectations and a history of success, what do you root for? Yay, we won the league again! Really, there’s nowhere to go but down. Moreover, how can you feel a part of success that’s already been earned? I had half a notion that I could earn my right to be a fan if I was along for the ride up, or down, and hadn’t come on board at the very top.

Fever Pitch, by Nick HornbyI was interested in Arsenal, for sure. I’d read Nick Hornby’s book, of course, and they played attractive soccer. Moreover, they were a London club, which held some appeal because I lived there briefly after college and thought I might be more likely to visit there than, say, Wigan. But I ruled them out, too. Too big, too successful, and I didn’t want to look like the bespectacled git who chose a team because of some book he read. And, frankly, they seemed too popular around Chicago.

The teams hovering around the relegation zone—your Reading, your Birmingham City, your Hull—I also ruled out. If I couldn’t watch them on TV, what would be the point of following them? I gave every team consideration, but there were many that didn’t produce a flicker of feeling: your Bolton, your Sunderland, your Blackburn. (Well, I almost felt something for Blackburn.)

What I wanted was a middle-of-the-table team with a rich history, an exciting style, and the promise of future success. I wanted to be along for the ride up. A cool name and decent-looking kit would be a bonus. Teams that, at the time, met at least some of those criteria included Tottenham Hotspur (cool name, London club) and West Ham (slightly Gatsbyesque name, London club, nice colors).

Bloody Confused, by Chuck CulpepperI briefly considered Portsmouth, having read about their amazing rise in the great book Bloody Confused, by Chuck Culpepper. So, so, so glad I didn’t climb on that wagon. I had no idea about the finances involved or the utter unlikeliness of their meteoric climb.

I will confess, too, that there was another factor involved. I found myself wanting to support a team that wasn’t well known or widely supported in the U.S. . . . just like the very hipsters I once despised. Knowledge of the obscure makes it easier to own your subject, I guess. I considered teams that historically came second in their cities, like Everton and Manchester City. Everton had Tim Howard, a big plus, and I liked David Moyes. And City were about to buy a bunch of players, including some I cared about, but at the time I didn’t think they had any personality. (Come to think of it, I still don’t, personality being the one thing you can’t buy.) Newcastle crossed my mind and kept right on going. Fulham, a small club, had Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey, and I loved the idea of making a pilgrimage to Craven Cottage.

But none of those teams felt quite right, for reasons I can’t explain.  I’ve since heard it said that you don’t choose your team, they choose you. And so it was. In the end, the answer was right in front of me. There was a massive club in England’s second city, with an enigmatic name and great colors, who were making an assault on the top half of the table under the direction of a fiercely competitive Irishman named Martin O’Neill. I liked their players—Gabby Agbonlahor and John Carew, Ashley Young and Gareth Barry, Stan Petrov and Martin Laursen—and I liked their chances. I liked that they didn’t have buckets of money and so would have to be smart about transfers and player development (though I liked that they weren’t exactly broke, either). Villa would have to punch above their weight if they were to be a top team, but, as one of the few teams not to be relegated from the Premiership, they seemed likely to be in the mix for years to come.

I don’t remember the moment I decided. With something that momentous, it seems as though there should be boozy toasts, or fireworks, or at least a match program and a ticket stub. And, to be honest, it took more than a few seasons before I stopped feeling like a fraud. I still feel like a fraud sometimes, to be honest.

But that doesn’t stop me from losing sleep when Villa are losing. That doesn’t stop me from spending too much time reading about injuries, transfers, and lineups. That doesn’t stop me from enjoying feeling like a part of it all, this team that plays thousands of miles away in a stadium I’ve yet to visit, a team I’ve only seen play in person once (Chicago Fire 0 – Aston Villa 1, headed goal by Agbonlahor at 28′).

My history with the team may be brief, but it’s underway. And it’s mine. And I’m working on my sons—who, at 7 and 9, are both at an age when choosing the New York Yankees seems the perfectly sensible thing to do.

And I think I look pretty good in the shirt.

Keir in Villa shirt
The Villa 2013-14 home kit makes its Montana debut

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