The Lerner years – part two

In which our saviour appears from the west.

At this time, most Villa supporters were glad to see the departure of O’Leary but still concerned at what the future might bring. There was a general feeling of hope that a change of ownership as imminent but natural concern at the direction any new owners would take – the feeling that unscrupulous businessmen could make a quick buck out of a club that still possessed what appeared a tidy balance sheet and plenty of assets to strip was a real one. Villa might not have had the worldwide commercial pull of Manchester United but the influence of the Glazer family at Old Trafford was a warning sign as to what might happen at Villa Park.

As August began, speculation grew that Lerner was poised to make a £64 million bid for Villa, while Martin O’Neill was being strongly tipped to take over as manager. O’Neill had been out of football for over a year while nursing his sick wife, and throughout his managerial career had turned down several high-profile jobs with leading clubs. That he was now apparently showing some interest in taking over at Villa was proof that a new dawn was on the horizon in Aston. It had been reported in some quarters that Lerner had originally wanted Jurgen Klinsmann, who had recently stepped down as German national coach after taking his side to the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup, but had been persuaded to go along with the fans’ choice O’Neill.

On the evening of 3rd August the news broke that O’Neill’s appointment was imminent – which wrong-footed several local journalists who were attending a regular event hosted by the Birmingham Press Club and found themselves doing radio interviews and putting together stories on what they’d intended to be a sociable evening off. A press conference was announced for Villa Park the following day and although the Villa’s media department refused to confirm the story, none of the large group of supporters who gathered outside the ground were surprised when Martin O’Neill arrived, accompanied by Steve Stride and Doug Ellis. As O’Neill met the fans there was a general feeling that this was the dawning of a new era.

The new manager wasted no time in flying over to Germany and the Netherlands, where Villa were playing pre-season friendlies and he would have seen that the new owners, whoever they might be and from whichever continent their finances originated, would have to be willing to spend heavily.

On Monday 14th August, at the start of the week when the new Premiership season was due to open, Aston Villa plc released a statement to the Stock Exchange stating that the club had accepted Randy Lerner’s £62.6 million offer for the club. The offer was equivalent to 547p per share, a small premium on their value at the time but considerably more than they had been trading for prior to talk of the takeover. Doug Ellis, who would be earning in excess of £20 million for the controlling interest he had paid £425,000 for in 1982, spoke of “a new chapter in Aston Villa’s proud history,” while Lerner looked forward to Villa competing at the highest level in Europe and stressed that he knew the importance of being the custodian of such a historic institution.

There was optimistic talk about money being available for improvements at Villa Park, Bodymoor Heath, and most importantly, to the playing squad. A couple of the other groups that had been linked with buying the club made noises about improved offers, but Lerner’s high-profile publicity campaign had struck a chord with supporters who looked forward to American-style marketing being brought into a club that had been complacent and inward-looking for far too long.

The opening day of the season saw Villa travelling to Arsenal, who were themselves heralding a new era with the first game in their new home at the Emirates. The previous season’s fixture had seen one of the worst Villa displays in a dismal campaign as they had gone down to a demoralising 5-1 defeat. This time round Villa supporters travelled to north London not exactly full of optimism, but there was certainly more grounds for optimism as Stars and Stripes flags and much pro-American feeling was in evidence.

The team’s performance was also unrecognisable from the shambles served up during Villa’s final trip to Highbury, with Swedish international defender Olof Mellberg making history with the first goal scored at the new ground. Villa were unable to hang on to their lead, a late equaliser from Gilberto Silva meaning that the game ended 1-1, a credible performance in the circumstances.

After the game came an incident that perhaps showed why Martin O’Neill had agreed to join the Villa, and why the club had been so depressed for years. The Danish defender Martin Laursen had come on in the dying minutes of the match for Villa striker Juan Pablo Angel, and after the game Doug Ellis demanded to know why the manager had made such a late substitution. “We have to pay him five thousand pounds now,” said the soon-to-be departing chairman. As a witness to the exchange said, “The look Martin gave left us in no doubt that he hoped the takeover would be concluded soon.”

And indeed it was. By the end of August first Michael Neville and then AVO6, who never got beyond a couple of gaffe-ridden interviews given by Nicholas Padfield, withdrew their interest leaving the way clear for Randy Lerner to take over. Lerner had already promised “to have some fun” as a football club owner and Villa supporters were exited at the prospect of their club finally fulfilling the potential they believed it had.

Lerner had already said that he wanted to own 100% of Villa’s shares, and supporters now began a concerted internet campaign to ensure that he could obtain the 80% after which Stock Exchange rules said that he could compulsorily purchase the rest. The fact that chief amongst the complaints against Ellis was that his own shareholding of around 34% was reckoned too much for one man, and that VFC and other critics had long been calling for a one-fan one-vote system of ownership, was quietly forgotten.

Some of this pressure on fellow shareholders was of dubious legality – one regular on the Villa messageboards made several threats of violence to anyone who refused to sell, in the unlikely event that Lerner pulled out of the deal at this late stage – but no-one seemed to take these seriously. Even before taking formal ownership, Lerner underwrote the £6.5 million needed to bring Martin O’Neill’s former Celtic midfielder Stiliyan Petrov to Villa Park on the last day of the August transfer window. Although the fee was modest by contemporary standards, reports later indicated that paying out such a sum would have sent Villa into administration without Lerner’s help, such was the club’s parlous financial state.

There was just one minor hitch to overcome – the sale was originally conditional on Lerner obtaining 90% of Villa’s shares by 1 pm on 18th September, and as the deadline passed he was still short of that figure, with a total of 89.69%. Fortunately the club’s board agreed to accept the lower figure and the sale was completed.

After a summer when Villa were making headlines on a daily basis, Doug Ellis quietly slipped away from the club he had ruled as his own personal fiefdom for 24 years on 19th September 2006. There were no fanfares, no grand farewells, just a low-key statement issued to the press stating that he, and the rest of the board with the exception of the long-serving Steve Stride, had resigned and were to be replaced by the incoming Americans. It was also announced that Ellis would be awarded the honorary title of President Emeritus.

Unsurprisingly, Randy Lerner was installed as the new Villa chairman with Steve Stride remaining on the board and continuing in the role as club secretary that he had filled since 1980. The rest of the board were a far cry from the business associates and long-time friends of the chairman that had been on the board for most of the Ellis years.

There were to be three non-executive directors, who in themselves showed the sort of big-hitting corporate clout Lerner hoped to bring with him into English football. Bob Kain was a director of IMG, one of the biggest sports marketing agencies in the world, while Michael Martin was president of Brooklyn NY Holdings, the Lerner family’s asset and investment management company. Kain in particular was a name big enough to impress anyone in the world of corporate finance but the new arrival who attracted most attention was General Charles C. Krulak, former Commandant of the US Marine Corps, holder of two Purple Hearts amidst a host of other campaign medals, and recently head of MBNA Europe, based in Chester.

Krulak was quite clearly an intriguing man – to give just one example, no director of an English football club could be said to have had such close access to the White House – but no-one could possibly have known just how controversial a figure he would become.