The Lerner Years – part one

Looking back at the summer that shook the world.

We’re not fickle – we just don’t like you.

2005-06 had been a disastrous season for Villa. Not only had they come dangerously close to relegation, they had also been knocked out of the domestic cups in the early stages by lowly opposition, a humiliating 3-0 rout in the League Cup at the hands of Doncaster Rovers having led to a front page headline in the Birmingham Evening Mail of “Just go Doug and, for God’s sake, take O’Leary with you!”.

In normal circumstances the chairman would have been the most vilified man at Villa Park but even he took second place in the unpopularity stakes to David O’Leary, a man who had for some reason decided to wage war on every aspect of the club. He railed against Villa’s cost-cutting, perhaps with justification when it emerged that he had to return loan signing Eirik Bakke to Leeds during the January transfer window as Ellis refused to countenance a permanent deal. The local press, and in particular the Evening Mail’s Villa writer Bill Howell, came in for sustained abuse and even supporters were not immune from O’Leary’s ire, being described as “fickle” following an extraordinary 8-3 win at Wycombe in the League Cup, which in turn led to a memorable banner on the Holte End some months later stating “We’re Not Fickle – We Just Don’t Like You”.

Against such a background it was small wonder that Villa supporters failed to raise much of a cheer when bitter rivals Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion were both relegated that year. Both had gone down exactly twenty years earlier, with Villa following them into the old second division the following season. Now, with the club wracked with in-fighting, there was every chance that history would repeat itself.

Even the club’s finances were starting to suffer. Bakke’s return to Elland Road was the first indication that Villa were beginning to run out of money and the sale of the Serpentine car park for £5 million to a local community venture was seen in some quarters as Villa beginning to sell their assets to make ends meet. Doug Ellis, who had battled ill-health for some time, was now, at the age of 81, as secure in his position as ever.

Reputedly the seventh-oldest executive director of any listed company in the country, he was in total overall control of the club after Bruce Langham, who had been Villa’s first CEO, stepped down in May 2005. Finance director Mark Ansell, thought to have been groomed as Ellis’s successor, had already left the board at this point, frustrated at the chairman’s reluctance to accept the rapidly-changing world of football. As Birmingham Post reporter Hyder Jawad remarked, “Villa were the first club to enter the twentieth century and one of the last to leave it”.

The summer of 2006 was a depressing time for Aston Villa. The club was reported to be broke, the only reason why David O’Leary was still in a job being that they couldn’t afford to pay up his contract. Doug Ellis had appointed the merchant bank Rothschild’s to find a buyer for his controlling interest in the club but there appeared to be no serious takers. Then on 14th July, barely a month before the start of the new season, Wolverhampton Express & Star writer Tim Nash ran a story stating that several players had issued a statement criticising Ellis for a lack of ambition and investment in new players. Included in their comments were complaints that they had to pay for their own masseurs and that the club’s training ground at Bodymoor Heath wasn’t being maintained properly due to financial cutbacks.

The story was immediately denied by the club, whose media spokesman Phil Mepham stated that none of the players or coaching staff had indicated that they were unhappy and all had denied making such a statement. However, there was no public support for Ellis from any of them and the club then announced an inquiry into the statement that they had said at first didn’t exist.

Nash, for his part, stood by his claims that a club official had contacted him and incited him to listen to hear what the players had to say. He had then suggested a joint statement, so as to protect those concerned, saying: “They were desperate to get it out in the open. Everything I was told that afternoon was directed to the very top of the club.”

The situation at Villa Park was now bordering on crisis level. The players were in open revolt, the manager was at loggerheads with all quarters and according to Bill Howell was looking for a way out of Villa Park without losing his lucrative pay-off. It was the culmination of two decades of failing to grasp opportunities when they arose, blinkered thinking and a divisive chairman who had always insisted on being in total control of the club, to the point where, into his ninth decade, he was still running affairs much as he had done upon first arriving at Villa Park almost forty years earlier.

But if the darkest hour is before the dawn, the following day brought news of a serious bid for Ellis’s shareholding being made from across the Atlantic. Randy Lerner was a reclusive, almost unknown, figure even in his native USA. His father Al had originally been involved with the small MNC bank, turning its credit card issuing arm MBNA into one of the world’s largest companies of its type.

Al Lerner was also owner of the Cleveland Browns NFL team, making himself popular with their fans after spearheading a return to their home city following a time when the franchise had been moved to Baltimore. Al died from brain cancer in 2002, at the age of 69, and three years later MBNA was sold to the Bank of America for $35 billion in stock and cash, making his widow Norma and their two children Randy and Nancy, billionaires.

At the time he gained this new wealth, Randy Lerner was 44 years old. He had originally trained as a lawyer, becoming a director of MBNA in 1993 and succeeding his father as chairman following Al’s death. The sale of MBNA gave Lerner the kind of opportunities denied him during his youth – contrary to generally-held opinion, Randy was not born into a rich family; Al’s wealth came to him comparatively late in life. As one source close to the Lerner family said, “His father died earlier than anyone had expected. It left an enormous gap in Randy’s life and he wanted to enjoy the money he’d inherited. He looked at various options before deciding that what he wanted to do was own a Premier League football club.”

Randy was a long-time Anglophile. He studied at Clare College, Cambridge, in 1983 and it was here that he had taken an interest in football; it was later claimed that one of the teams he followed at the time were then-European champions Aston Villa. Whether that story was true or not, the story that he was thinking of buying a controlling interest in the Villa was not denied, the Cleveland Browns management adding to speculation by saying that he was “looking at business interests in the UK”. Students of Villa history might have noted an irony in the story; back in 1968 the supporter protests that led to the arrival of Doug Ellis as chairman had begun with the sacking of manager Tommy Cummings. Now the departure of another manager was looking as though it might be the precursor to Ellis finally leaving Villa Park for good.

While the story was breaking, the club’s investigation into the players’ statement, inevitably dubbed ‘Bodymoorgate’ reached a conclusion after two days of evidence-gathering and speculation. The team of veteran club secretary/director Steve Stride and two non-executive directors, Steve Kind and the long-serving David Owen, summoned David O’Leary to give his version of events and late on the evening of July 19th, as crowds of journalists and supporters gathered on the North Stand car park, O’Leary left and drove away without saying a word.

Shortly afterwards Phil Mepham read out a statement that said the inquiry had established no connection between O’Leary and the statement, but both parties had agreed to his departure as Villa manager by mutual consent. At this point the Villa were two days from their first pre-season game, the regular friendly at Walsall, and the team would be managed temporarily by O’Leary’s assistant Roy Aitken, who had only been back at work for a short while after a cancer scare.

Speculation was rife that Lerner was about to make a bid for the Villa, then on 26th July Radio Five Live reporter Pat Murphy broke the news that talks were off and the American was flying home. This was a massive blow to the hopes of Villa supporters who were anticipating the dreams of a rich new owner and the blame was firmly placed in the court of Doug Ellis, with Villa Fans Combined spokesman Jonathan Fear offering to fly to Cleveland in an attempt to persuade Lerner to resurrect the deal. However, it later transpired that this unwelcome-looking development was nowhere near as dramatic as was first said. General Krulak, speaking about the time later in an interview with the Heroes & Villains fanzine, said that Lerner’s return home was a case of “Sitting back to look at our cards” and he never had any intention of pulling out of the deal.

At the time, though, with Lerner seemingly out of the picture, attention was turned to other groups that were reported to be interested in owning an under-achieving Premier League football club. First to cast his hat into the ring was Michael Neville, a local businessman who had been linked with a bid some time earlier. The source of his potential funding was unknown and Neville merely stated, “I have the backing” but his interest was not taken seriously, particularly after he claimed a close friendship with legendary former player Charlie Aitken, who subsequently said he had never heard of Neville.

Also rumoured to be showing an interest was Athol Still, agent of England manager Sven Goran Erikkson, who was photographed entering the North Stand reception area at Villa Park. This link was given some credibility as it came after Erikkson had previously been trapped by a News of the World sting in which he had said he would be interested in taking the Villa job and would bring with him David Beckham, then with Real Madrid. Again, though, this link came to nothing. More tangible was the interest shown by a consortium called AV06, fronted by High Court judge Nicholas Padfield and allegedly made up of a group of wealthy businessmen. And finally, after a couple of days of speculation, Lerner returned to the UK to continue discussions.