One of the great joys of football is its ability to transcend borders, drawing people together from all walks of life. This week, I was lucky enough to catch up with prominent overseas Villa supporter, Mark Jirobe.
For those of you who are not familiar with Mark, he’s the co-founder/editor of the hugely popular fan site and podcast Under a Gaslit Lamp, and also chairman of the Pittsburgh Lions supporters club. We spoke about his discovery of Villa at 19, life as an overseas fan, and expectations for the season ahead. I hope you enjoy it.
Liam Mucklow: “So a good place to start for those who don’t know, would be how on earth does a 19-year-old from North America end up falling in love with a football club in Birmingham?”
Mark Jirobe: “It’s a little bit of a strange situation. My laptop that I had used for years and years died on me very suddenly, I couldn’t do stuff I needed for work, watch Netflix, anything. I thought, man, I’m gonna need to get a second job to get a new laptop. So, this took 31 days of having four and a half hours sleep, working two jobs. The first thing I do when I get back home with my new laptop is find some sports to stream, and I go on and find Manchester United and Aston Villa. I had heard of United, a global brand like Real Madrid or Barcelona, but I had never heard of Villa.
The game was played at Villa Park and I didn’t understand the whole singing aspect, the only time Americans sing together is 1:45 am when it’s the last call at a bar. What really struck me was that even though Villa were 4-1 down, the fans were still singing. I thought you’ve got to really love a team to still be singing in this situation. This made me think I have to find out more about Aston Villa, and over the next two weeks, it became an obsession. I found out a lot in those two weeks, including how the Holte End got its name, that Villa are founder members of the Football League, and even where Birmingham is in England! Twelve years on, and it is such a big part of my life. People say it’s such a cool story. I wasn’t looking for a football team, it felt like Villa found me.”
LM: “I think I read that your Uncle is also a Villa fan, but this was completely unrelated, and you had no idea?”
MJ: “Yeah, he lives a decent way away from me, so growing up we didn’t see each other a lot and he would really have had no reason to talk to me about football. So, one day, I posted something on Facebook about being excited to watch a game and he asked why I was watching soccer. He told me he had been to Villa Park in the 90’s and fell in love with the club, he sent me pictures of him standing in the Holte End. I felt like, this is starting to get weird, Villa really did choose me”
LM: “That’s a crazy connection, perhaps it was meant to be! It’s probably fair to say Villa have long had a US association, from Randy Lerner to Wes Edens, and one or two prominent American players – most notably Brad Friedel.
How popular is football in the US now, and is this due to American ownership in overseas leagues?
MJ: “Actually, one of the reasons it seems to be growing in popularity is sports betting, adults are seeing it as something to bet on and thinking that maybe they should find out some more about it. Another aspect is the fact American sports can be very violent, parents are scared of their children being impacted by a head trauma at 8 or 9 years old so are turning to football. It’s not to say that these things can’t happen in football, but Americans see it as a more physically demanding but less dangerous game”
LM: “Tell us about a typical match day for Mark Jirobe and The Pittsburgh Lions?”
MJ: “Typical match day is at the same pub every time, but that’s been closed throughout Covid which means we can’t meet up. Supposedly they’re opening soon, which means we can finally get together again and have a couple of pints and watch Villa.”
LM: “Fingers crossed we can all get back to watching football together soon. How did matchdays look in the pre-Covid world?”
MJ: “Okay, so let’s say it’s a 12pm kick off in England, we’re 5 hours behind, so I’m up at quarter to 6, grab my stuff and head off to the pub. I’m usually the first one outside waiting for the doors to open. That’s what you have to do, there was a time in the championship where the games weren’t on TV and I had to listen on the Villa app. The year we went down, I listened to every game on the app alone in my kitchen”
LM: “That’s commitment, what a horrible season”
MJ: “I tell people, if I can sit through that, there’s not much I’m not willing to sit through for this club”
LM: “But you’ve managed to watch Villa in person a few times during pre-seasons?”
MJ: Yeah, they’ve been over here a few times. The first time I ever watched Aston Villa live was in Philadelphia, I remember the date, 19th July 2011. I was so surprised by how much Claret and Blue I saw, I knew the club was big, but I didn’t quite grasp it until that day. It just felt like I belong here! There really is a tight knit community of Lions Clubs over here, I’ve made so many friends. I’ve realised if you throw a dart at a map of the states, I’ll never be too far from a Villa fan.”
LM: Not to bring the mood down but I believe you had plans to come to Villa Park scuppered by Covid?”
MJ: “I think I was 24 days away from coming to Villa Park for my first game! The first month after it happened, I was pretty low about it. You’ve got to remember this was over a 10 year wait with getting the finances together, things would then get in the way and I had just worked so hard and been so patient. Then ‘Under a Gaslit Lamp’ started to grow in popularity, and there were people that wanted to meet up and have a pint. Through Regan (co-founder of Under a Gaslit Lamp) I made one of the best friends I’ll ever have and when my plans got dashed, so did the chance to give him a handshake, a hug, go to a game. But it’s going to be all the sweeter when I finally get there”.
LM: Lastly, no team has improved their first 11 as much as we have in this transfer window, but I’m still cautious in my optimism for this year. I saw you say something along the lines of, anything above 17th being acceptable, and I have to say that’s where I’m at. How do you see the season panning out?
MJ: Maybe people took that the wrong way, like I wasn’t ambitious enough, but for me, getting back up in this league is a 3 to 5 year project. I would like to see this team finish higher, but first of all Aston Villa has to return to being a concrete Premier League team. Everyone is rightly excited, but there has to be an air of realism, it doesn’t happen overnight. I think this is going to be a process. But, I’m excited for this season and there’s so much to be happy about.
LM: “Mark, great to chat, thanks for your time!”
Up the Villa!