The weekend’s FA Cup third round delivered yet another disappointing result to add to our collection for the season. A 1-1 draw against League 2 side Wycombe Wanderers led to frayed tempers and increased the talk amongst the beleaguered Villa faithful of planning protests, demonstrations and stay-aways for upcoming games. The hashtag #RelegateRandy, which gained momentum over the dire festive period, is still out in force and vitriol is spewing uncontrollably right, aimed at the players, the manager and, of course, Randolph Lerner.
In jest, I said that I blamed Doug Ellis for not foreseeing this when he sold the club many years ago now. Although this was a joke, it did begin to make me think – and worry.
Back in 2006, the vast majority of Villa fans were sick to death of the Ellis regime. We felt restricted by penny-pinching and were unable to compete with the big boys. We felt that we were being cut adrift. We believed that with a new, rich and ambitious owner, we could be in a position to challenge and become great again. We considered that we were always just coming up short and that with more of a push we’d be right up there.
It seemed that the clamour to be rid of Ellis had lasted for years and years. He was never really a popular figure amongst fans, who sensed within Ellis a bitterness about not being in power for our glorious triumphs in the early 1980s. Having been expelled from the board in 1979, he returned as chairman in 1982, with the club as European champions. Within five years, we would be relegated. Whether this was down to Ellis is largely debatable; the previous regime had landed the club with huge debts. The dismantling of our European Cup-winning squad was necessary to balance the books. Unfortunately, it ultimately led to our last stint in what was the old Second Division and Ellis was certainly held responsible.
Upon returning to the First Division, we spent the next seven seasons bizarrely yo-yoing between mounting title challenges and being relegation candidates (think Leicester City circa 2014-16 but over several years).
The following seven seasons saw our most stable period, where we finished each season between fourth and eighth. Villa fans’ frustrations with Ellis grew throughout the 1990s, perhaps fuelled by popular managers such as Ron Atkinson and John Gregory famously falling out with their chairman. In Gregory’s case especially, the feeling was that we were perhaps just one or two players away from being genuine title contenders and the frustration of not being allowed to break the bank to land his targets became too much. It sounds like a familiar story and it is one we have heard regarding a certain Martin O’Neill, showing that this wasn’t a problem experienced only in the Ellis era.
Ellis had spent money, however. Outlays of £5.5 million for Steve Stone, £5.25 million for Dion Dublin and the record signings of £7 million for Stan Collymore and then £9.5 million for Juan Pablo Ángel were certainly not to be sniffed at. Add a £6.75 million for Paul Merson here and a £6 million for Boško Balaban there and it adds up and actually portrays an image of a supportive chairman.
The problem was always that everyone around the club felt as if just pushing onwards and perhaps speculating to accumulate could have bought us some real glory. Ellis’s thrifty nature would never allow us this springboard and, rather than being content with what we had (and what we would kill for now), we wanted more ambition to drive us forward. Whether this was right or wrong given the present circumstances we find ourselves in, I genuinely can’t decide; standing still doesn’t seem the right approach but our desire to have investment has left us in a terrible situation.
Ellis grew even more weary with the club in his last few years as chairman and finishing positions deteriorated with an unlikely sixth placed finish sandwiched between a couple of sixteenths and a tenth. The fans had enough. Apparently so had the players, as well as yet another manager in David O’Leary: a mutinous statement supposedly from the players, but also rumoured to involve O’Leary, criticised Ellis’s parsimonious running of the club. Rumours of cutbacks to the extent of refusal to employ a masseur and even penny-pinching right down to a refusal to reimburse a cup of coffee were emerging and it was making a mockery of the club.
Underneath it all, however, was a love of Aston Villa, the club. Whilst a cynic may oppose this and say it was more a love of making money and having something he could control, I believe that Ellis just would not tolerate putting the club into debt. Perhaps it was an old school view to take but we were operational within our own means and unfortunately that meant we could only go so far.
When Ellis was finally ready relinquish control of the club, there was a drawn out process of finding a buyer he deemed suitable and who he believed wouldn’t just be using Villa for his own gain. I am of the opinion that he genuinely cared about who would be coming in and taking over Aston Villa Football Club.
My worry is that Randy Lerner may not have that same level of commitment to Aston Villa. We know he is desperate to get out and he simply is not in a position to be picky about the next owner. I do not see the possibility of a takeover bid being rejected should Lerner feel that the next incumbent is unsuitable.
Ellis did his best in finding us a new owner who had money, a vision for the club and who would protect the values of Aston Villa Football Club. The fact that Lerner claimed an affiliation with Aston Villa during his time in England as a student was a plus point. Lerner had obviously further outlined his intentions to Ellis and passed the test. A fiercely stubborn man, Ellis would not have been pushed into selling the club on anyone’s terms other than his own. Indeed, Ellis recalls how, after a promise from Lerner to invest significant funds, the deal was sealed on a handshake.
To his credit, Lerner has done some amazing things for this club, things which we should not forget about. Those first few years under Martin O’Neill were exciting times. Lerner did bankroll our push for Champions League football and we could boast of exciting talent such as Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and James Milner. Sadly, far too much of the money was actually frittered on average, even poor, players, including £8.5 million on Nigel Reo Coker, £10 million on Curtis Davies and £5 million on Nicky Shorey. Perhaps a bigger problem than this was the incredible wages being offered on top of these transfer fees, which really led to the club’s demise. The willingness to spend was there. We can but wish that the structure was in place to have it invested in a more controlled and considered manner.
For me, those early Lerner years saw Villa’s profile improve off the field just as much as on it – and that is down to Lerner. The charitable gesture to waive a sponsorship deal and let the logo of Birmingham children’s hospice Acorns adorn our shirts was extremely noble and brought us much goodwill from the football community. The renovation of the Holte pub was popular with fans and showed us that we actually had an owner who cared about the club and its traditions. Long overdue recognition for the heroes of 1982 was now forthcoming and celebrated with a ‘Legends Day’ where greats such as Peter Withe and Dennis Mortimer were paraded around Villa Park before kick off and an nice extra touch was the text of the commentary leading up to Withe’s all important goal against Bayern Munich adorning the North Stand. Not to be forgotten amongst these charitable and history-embracing gestures was much needed investment in Bodymoor Heath, which had long been dithered over. The training ground was instantly upgraded and transformed into what is recognised as perhaps the finest training facilities in the country.
Once the going got tough, it seems the excitement faded for Lerner ceased and the noble gestures have all but stopped. What remains is an owner desperate to salvage something from the wreckage of the good ship Aston Villa. With endless unfit owners flooding English football over the last ten years or so, our club could be in real trouble with any future proprietors. The current regime may be a disaster right now and the last few years have seen us drift aimlessly towards our current situation but I fear we could be the target of owners as ridiculous as Massimo Cellino, Mike Ashley, the Glazers, Vincent Tan, Karl Oyston, Craig Whyte, Peter Risdale, Alexandre Gaydamak, Hicks and Gillett or the Venkys. The vast majority of these people coming into football do not know what they are doing and see only the money they can make.
Our next owners need to be football people first and foremost. They need to know how to run a club or at least have success in running a huge sporting institution. For all Lerner’s good intentions, he has ultimately failed due to not knowing this business sector and he hasn’t surrounded himself with those from a football background who could have helped and advised the owner better. We have had military generals, corporate marketing men and banking officials steering us wildly. Can we really expect a man who is disinterested and desperate to reclaim anything he can to put us in safe hands? Those sort of people do not come along very often and the likelihood is that another American business group or a Chinese consortium will be our next owners. Perhaps bottom of Randy Lerner’s checklist will be to make sure that they have the best interests of Aston Villa Football Club at heart.