Having Birmingham City as cross-city rivals, with all the ownership trials and tribulations they have endured over the years since jailed money-launderer Carson Yeung took over the club, it would be a task of Herculean proportions for Aston Villa to paint themselves as the crisis club of the country’s second city. The former European champions and almost the epitome of that hackneyed old phrase ‘a sleeping giant’ of a club appear however, resolutely keen to have a bash at it.
At the recent Premier League game against Newcastle United, a club where the owner is hardly the ‘talk of the toon’ himself, another dispiriting performance led fans to unfurl a banner proclaiming “Too little, too late, Lerner out.” It’s a sentiment that the club’s American owner may well echo himself. Any change of ownership however, is hugely unlikely to happen until the season’s denouement, and may all depend on Villa’s league status at the conclusion of a relegation battle that a club of that stature and with the playing assets available should never have been involved in.
Over recent months, there have been a few rumours floating around regarding potential suitors for the club. Some probably have nefarious roots, whilst others may just be the result of well-intentioned wishful thinking. Last month, a Villa fan site addressed such a rumour floated by a tweet from the ‘Secret Footballer’ apparently alluding to an interest from the “American Pheonix Group.” Apart from the rather individual spelling by the recalcitrant player’s nom de plume, the site was quick to debunk the rumour as mere unsubstantiated speculation regarding a formerly acquisitive business enterprise that has been quiet for the best part of a decade. The deafening silence since, probably attests to their sound assessment of the situation. With the local newspaper more full of people denying – Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen being the latest to join the throng – rather than registering, an interest in the club and chief executive Tom Fox declaring that his American boss is not ‘motivated to sell’ Aston Villa right now, any raft of speculation regarding a rapid sale is floating away over the horizon.
Lerner had purchased the club back in 2006. Then owner Doug Ellis had, by all accounts run his long race with the club and manager David O’Leary appeared about as popular as Paul Lambert was a few weeks ago. It was therefore to common acclaim amongst the Villa fans that Lerner arrived as new broom, armed with investment to take the club forward. It would have been hugely encouraging for the fans to hear that this was no ‘Glazer’ deal, and the American bought the club with his own money, no leveraging of the club and saddling it with the debt of its own purchase price. Whether he paid by using an MBNA credit card isn’t known, but it looked like a bright dawn for the club. Apparently Lerner had got hooked on football during his time studying at Cambridge, and had a particular affinity with the Midlands club. A wealthy fan buying the club. It was dream time at Villa Park.
The season before Lerner arrived, the club had finished 16th in the league, and the American acted quickly to dispense with O’Leary, replacing him with the popular Martin O’Neill. Things initially went very well, and the ebullient northern Irishman took the club to three successive sixth place finishes in the Premier League. Ironically however that zenith was probably where the dream started to fall apart. Lifting the club to that position had cost had cost a small fortune, but to progress any further and offer sustainable challenges for Champions League places and major honours would cost a whole lot more. Whilst O’Neill was understandably keen to kick on, Lerner was equally understandably concerned. The friction eventually led to O’Neill’s departure in August 2010, and the bruising and expensive legal wrangle that followed probably sullied Lerner’s affections for the beautiful game even further.
Although many fans were originally disappointed to see O’Neill depart, quite quickly, it became the accepted wisdom that the former manager had signed a number of fairly average players on long and large contracts. As Lerner continued to honour the traditions of the club, the fans were prepared to keep faith with him. Two fairly left-field appointments followed however as first the respected Gerard Houllier took up the managerial reins, only to last less than a full season as illness forced his retirement, before Alex McLeish, previously employed by bitter rivals Birmingham City stayed for a fairly unsatisfactory twelve months.
The pressure was then on for a successful manager, and Lerner prised Scot Paul Lambert away from Norwich City in a fairly acrimonious move. Seen as the sort of manager who would develop young talent from the successful Villa academy and progress the club within a reasonable budget, the appointment was widely welcomed. With such an espoused plan in place, fans were prepared to tolerate a flat season or two with promise of better things to come as players came through. Progress was however slow at best, non-existent at worst, and Lambert was eventually shown the door to be replaced by Tim Sherwood. By this time, it had become clear that Lerner had fell out of love with Premier League football, and was looking for a way out – preferably recouping as much of his investment as possible.
Back in May last year, what many had suspected was confirmed when Lerner, speaking like a man whose bubble had burst said, “I have come to know well that fates are fickle in the business of English football. And I feel that I have pushed mine well past the limit. The last several seasons have been week-in, week-out battles.” It was a sad comment by a man who had arrived at the club with the very best of intentions. In the era of Shiekh Mansoor and Roman Abramovich ownership of clubs however, even FFP has done little to level up the playing-field. Instead, it has locked in the inequities that already existed.
The American has been no ‘tight-wad’ as an owner and by 2010 alone had pumped in some £206million – a figure only beaten by the owners of Manchester City and Chelsea – with probably a further £100million or so spent since. And so, at the end of this season, Villa will either be relegated, and missing out on the television bonanza money will make them a much less attractive proposition. Should they stay up however, at least the price Lerner could ask would reflect the Premier league’s new wealth. Would he then be tempted not to sell though? His bitter experience would suggest the contrary.
While some rumours – believe at your possible peril – suggest interested parties are bering advised by investment bankers Merrill-Lynch, poised to make a move should Premier League status be retained, former manger and Villa stalwart Graham Taylor has made his feelings known. “Aston Villa is a rudderless ship,” said Taylor, former manager and board member at the club. “It is all over the shop. When Randy Lerner took over I was impressed. I thought he was going to show me that these billionaires could come in and successfully run the show. I thought Villa had done well and there was a plan. He has put a lot of his own money into Villa, but I began to be disturbed when people like Steve Stride, the best football club secretary I have ever worked with, left. At that point I thought something had gone wrong.” No-one other than Lerner himself could tell at what point he came to the same conclusion. The end of the season will however probably see the end of the road for for the man who pursued the dream of making Villa great again, but left them in a very similar place to where he found them.