Heroes and Villans

August 15, 2006
By Dominic Raynor
(Archive)

Aston Villa supporters have long been a disgruntled lot, but a new optimism has entered their lives as the embodiment of all their suffering has exited.

Randy Lerner
Soccernet / NFLPhotosRandy Lerner: Happy with Villa's achievements in the 2008-9 season.

Doug Ellis has called time on his 31-year reign as the frugal and frustrating chairman of the Villans and US millionaire Randy Lerner stands poised to complete a £62.6million takeover of the Midlands club against a backdrop of expectation.

Ellis' first spell at the club came between 1968 to 1975 and featured relegation to the old third division in 1970, promotion two seasons later, a runners-up spot in the second division and League Cup victory in 1975.

Frustratingly for Ellis it was during his absence from Villa Park that the club enjoyed its halcyon days, securing both the Football League title in 1981 and the European Cup in 1982.

Soon after Villa's greatest moment Ellis returned and assumed control of the club and it has been under his subsequent stewardship that Villa have slipped from a club at the top, to a shambles with no future. It is this decline in fortunes for which Deadly Doug has been vilified.

A succession of managers have left Villa Park citing Ellis's stifling presence as the main factor for their exit, and former boss John Gregory insisted the aging chairman was stuck in a time warp. Dwindling investment in a dwindling squad contributed to years of under achievement and culminated last term in Villa's annus horribilis.

Villa slipped into a relegation battle, eventually avoiding the drop by six points, lost their manager David O'Leary following a player revolt and looked set to start the new season with no additions to a threadbare squad, no manager to bring order to the chaos, no paying fans in the stands and relegation an almost certain prospect.

Enter Lerner and his takeover bid.

Potential takeovers had been rebuffed before, much to the dismay of the fans, but this time Ellis appeared willing to sell and rumours of the American's bid brought further candidates out of the shadows as Sven Goran Eriksson's agent Athole Still and Solihull businessman Michael Neville's consortium announced interest in buying the ailing club.

This public interest and behind-the-scene assurances from Ellis that he would step aside, allowed the chairman to make one final gesture before finally bowing to years of pressure and heading for the exit. He secured the services of highly-rated manager Martin O'Neill, who had reportedly refused the Newcastle United job and was highly fancied as the new England manager.

The capture of O'Neill, the saviour of Leicester City and Celtic, was an amazing and unexpected coup for the old timer and then, as one of the many talking heads on Sky Sports proclaimed, Ellis finally did Villa the ultimate favour by stepping down - although he will continue in the largely ceremonial role of life president at the club.

After signing-off in memorable fashion, August is set to usher out the Ellis era and mark the beginning of what fans instantly assume will be a golden age under Lerner. But is the American really the Messiah that Villa require or are the club just desperate to welcome anything that is not Doug Ellis?

Firstly, the American has not followed the example of his compatriot and Manchester United owner, Malcolm Glazer who plunged a club in the black, like Villa, £660million into the red. Far from it. Lerner, worth around £800million, has already promised to spend his cash upgrading the Villa Park stadium and the Bodymoor Heath training facilities.

Empics / MikeEgertonDoug Ellis unveils Martin O'Neill

There are similarities between Glazer and Lerner, as both own an NFL franchise, the former presiding over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the latter over the Cleveland Browns, but that is where the parallels end. While the unwanted Glazer family had to be smuggled out of Old Trafford in the back of a police riot van Lerner has been welcomed with open arms.

Lerner's financial advisor Keith Harris has gone to great lengths to express that the man he represents is a real football fan - in fact he went out of his way to stress his client referred to the game as football and not soccer - and has followed the fortunes of Villa since studying at Cambridge University in the early 1980's.

The former MBNA chairman's camp are certainly saying all the right things and the man himself, a fellow of few words, didn't do too badly when he said: 'It is my belief and the basis for my bid to acquire Aston Villa Football Club that it can compete at the highest level within the Premiership and in Europe.'

That statement ticked all the boxes and his first act as owner will further endear him to the club. Lerner will look to offer O'Neill, a manager with a proven aptitude for elevating struggling clubs, to a lucrative £10million five-year deal, binding him to the longest managerial contract in the Premiership.

And while the 44-year-old is no Roman Abramovich he is also expected to provide substantial amounts of cash for the purchase of new players as he provides his Irish manager, and former Villa player, with the tools to achieve their shared goal of restoring the club to its former glory.

However, Lerner will obviously approach this as a business project and will hardly be willing to bankrupt himself to save Aston Villa. But at least his tenure will begin in a positive manner and while it will take numerous seasons to construct a team capable of challenging for top honours - if indeed that is possible - he has at least returned long forgotten feelings of optimism and hope to the Villa faithful.

  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.