Aston Villa comment: Home game... 5,000 miles across the pond
At Villa Park the night is cold and damp, but 5,000 miles away sunshine is streaming through the windows and Rick Leong is in his element.
“Villa fans!?” he exclaims, directing a beaming smile and outstretched hand toward the latest two people to walk through the door of the Kezar Pub.
For a few hours every week when Villa are playing, this watering hole in a corner of San Francisco becomes the home of the California Lions Club, of which Leong is chairman.
They will be there today, fighting off tiredness when Dean Smith’s men host Norwich in a crucial Premier League clash. Kick-off is 7am, local time.
“The early mornings can be difficult. Most people, if they are going to watch the game, would rather do so in bed,” smiles Leong, who drives more than 40 miles from his home on the other side of San Francisco Bay to the Kezar.
“But we always get at least a few members here. We also get Villa fans who might be on holiday, or over here for any other reason coming to watch the game with us.”
On this particular occasion, the crowd is a mix of club members and tourists. The decision by Sky Sports to choose Villa’s home match with Newcastle for live broadcast, meanwhile, means Leong and his fellow regulars get to enjoy a rare treat of watching at the relatively sociable hour of Monday lunchtime.
For those of us who have grown up in the Midlands, it can be easy to forget the football clubs who have always been just a short drive away are now very much global attractions, with fanbases to match.
Leong’s group is one of three officially-licensed Villa supporter clubs in California alone, while there are 68 in total outside the UK.
Wolves’ rapid ascent under Fosun has seen their worldwide fanbase expand with supporter clubs being founded in both Qatar and Vietnam, to name just two locations, in the past 18 months.
Albion’s official supporters club, meanwhile, reports increasing contact from Croatia courtesy of Slaven Bilic’s exploits at The Hawthorns.
Overseas supporter clubs are nothing new, of course, yet the days when they were almost exclusively run by expats are long gone, with Leong being a prime example.
He has lived his entire life in the Bay Area and it was only a random set of circumstances which led to him becoming hooked on Villa.
“I had started to get into football and the Premier League, but I didn’t really have a team,” he explains.
“Around 2006, I was volunteering at a local children’s hospice and one of the charities we were linked with was the Acorns Hospice in the UK.
“All of a sudden, I see this football team with Acorns on their shirts. Straight away it was like: ‘This is my team!’ I always tell people I didn’t need to choose, Villa chose me!”
Having found no supporters club in the western USA, Leong founded the California Lions in 2009, beginning a journey which has led to the forming of countless lifelong friendships.
There have also been some extraordinary experiences, with a 10,000-mile round trip to Wembley last May being the highlight.
“I went over just for the play-off final,” he explains. “Friends thought I was crazy. But it was definitely worth it.”
Matches are almost always watched at the Kezar, where the landlord paid for an AVTV subscription during the club’s three-year Championship stay, correct in the assumption he would comfortably recoup the money and more in bar takings.
There have been exceptions. When the pub was unable to open for a 4am kick-off last season, the group took advantage of a members’ links with the Oakland Athletics and watched the match at the baseball club’s training facility.
Neither has Leong ever forgotten Acorns. When the California Lions were given the honour of hosting the annual meet-up of North American supporter groups back in September, $12,300 (£10,000) was raised for the charity by an auction of signed Villa memorabilia. Leong estimates the club has raised more than $40,000 for different charities over the past decade.
“I just love meeting fellow supporters and learning about their experiences,” he says. “The biggest supported teams over here are still the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United.
“When I am out and see someone wearing a Villa shirt, I just have to go up and start a conversation.”
On the Kezar’s seemingly endless rows of TV screens, Villa are coasting to a comfortable win over the Magpies. The mood is a happy one, yet just a month on, you suspect today there will be plenty of nails being bitten, just as they will at Villa Park.
“The time difference only really ever really hits you when we lose,” says Lee Bradley, a Villa supporter who moved from Ireland to San Francisco nearly a decade ago.
“In the UK, you can go to bed a few hours after the game and forget about it. Here, we have pretty much an entire day left to stew on it!”