Aston Villa: Has Randy Lerner served his time at Villa Park?
Aston Villa have moved quickly this week to quash any rumours that the media-shy Randy Lerner is set to sell the club.
After nearly eight years at the helm he’s appointed five managers and has seen his playing staff changed beyond all recognition. He’s ploughed millions into the club since taking over at the helm in 2006 and began life as the Villa owner on the crest of a wave - but is it now time for him to move on?
Lerner’s first job was to entice Martin O’Neill to become manager and he then backed him with numerous transfers and high wages. The billionaire was even seen as something of maverick because here was a foreign chairman who was happy to let his manager get on with the job in hand and did not want to get involved with any transfer dealings.
With his impetus and O’Neill's vision, Villa finished sixth in the Premiership for three straight seasons, as well as reaching the final of the League Cup in 2010. Villa could almost smell Champions League football for the first time, but just came up short as a lack of strength in depth meant the side could not break in to the top four.
It was the days before Manchester City became one of the richest clubs in the world and before Daniel Levy really started splashing the cash at Spurs. But then things started to go horribly wrong because something seriously spooked Lerner who almost overnight completely changed his transfer philosophy.
Lerner realised the dream of Champions League football was a lot further away than he had first imagined and so he began reigning in the funds. O’Neill, realising he would no longer get the backing he had previously enjoyed, threw his dummies out the pram and left.
In four years the manager had brought in the likes of Richard Dunne, James Collins, Stephen Warnock, Habib Beye, Luke Young, Nicky Shorey, Brad Friedel, Stiliyan Petrov, Nigel Reo-Coker, Ashley Young, James Milner, Stewart Downing, Carlos Cuellar, Emile Heskey, Zat Knight and John Carew – all with varying degrees of success.
But more importantly they had all been enticed with the offer of big salaries so when O’Neill left suddenly Villa were left nursing a huge wage bill.
Rather than panic Lerner temporarily brought in youth team coach Kevin MacDonald who in turn brought in all the youth players he had helped develop over the years.
Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan, Ciaran Clark, Nathan Baker, Andrea Weimann, Nathan Delfouneso, Eric Lichaj, Chris Herd and even Gary Gardner were all drafted in at various times and despite a hammering at Newcastle things began to looked settled when Gerard Houllier was eventually appointed.
Again, Houllier was backed with significant funds as he brought in Cameroon player Jean Makoun and most importantly Darren Bent for a club record £27 million. But the exodus continued and as Milner, Downing and Young all left for bigger clubs, Houllier suffered a health scare and suddenly Villa were left with Gary McAllister managing a very average side.
Lerner then did something no football fan to this day can understand – he appointed Alex McLeish. The fact he was a former manager at Villa’s rival club, Birmingham City, ended up playing second fiddle to the fact he had already relegated them twice in three years and was renowned for playing some of the worst football ever seen in the Premier League.
However, he was again backed to some degree by Lerner and brought in Shay Given, Alan Hutton and Charles N’Zogbia.
After just one season of atrocious football Lerner was again left scratching his head as he was almost forced to sack to McLeish before facing a revolt from the fans.
He then appointed what was considered to the fans' favourite choice in Paul Lambert.
Lambert had enjoyed very successful spells at the likes of Colchester United and Norwich City and was seen as one of the league's emerging talents. The only problem was Lerner never had any intention of backing his new manager with the same sort of funds.
On top of that Lambert was also tasked with removing all of Villa’s remaining high earning players. He ruthlessly dropped Given and Bent, who were eventually loaned out this year, partly because of the emerging talents of Guzan and Benteke, but also because they were suddenly surplus to requirements due to their bulging wages. Stephen Ireland also soon followed suit.
Stephen Warnock and Alan Hutton were forced to train with the reserves, while Dunne and Collins were also soon on their way.
None of today’s team could be considered to be on huge wages – although Benteke was seen as an investment and did see his wages go up considerably – but there has been a huge shift in personnel and how the club acts in the transfer market.
Last year Lambert brought in Ashley Westwood, Matthew Lowton, Yacouba Sylla, Jordan Bowery, Joe Bennett, Karim El Ahmadi and Benteke.
This season he signed Jed Steer, Leandro Bacuna, Nicklas Helenius, Jores Okore and Libor Kozak, before snapping up Grant Holt and Ryan Bertrand on loan.
The talent Villa can and will continue to attract under Lerner and Lambert is there for all to see but do you blame the chairman, the current manager or previous managers for failing to revive Villa’s fortunes?
It appeared Lerner was taken completely by surprise when his large investments brought little reward in return for his efforts and he suddenly shut up shop – and no one has really heard from him since.
In meantime he sold the American Football team Cleverland Browns – a team his inherited from his father – but it has had absolutely no bearing on how he’s viewed his project at Villa Park.
There were even plans to knock down the North Stand – Villa’s oldest and most dated stand – but nothing has been heard about that for years.
The world of football has changed so much since Lerner took over at the helm nearly eight years ago, with more clubs willing to pay huge salaries and transfers to entice the best players.
It’s going to be a long, long time before Villa are back up there competing with the best but unless the club – like every club in English football – suddenly gets a huge injection of cash, the fans are just going to have to get used to it.
We’ve also seen first hand the likes of Leeds United and Birmingham City have been left a shell of their former clubs simply because their owners have been careless with their precious funds.
It begs the question whether it’s better just to sit tight and see what happens before wishing away a club’s stability, no matter how boring each season becomes, or whether you still believe a club should go for bust.
Villa fans seemed to have a lot of shout about when Lerner first took over but those heady-days are now a distant memory.
Whether he’s ready to sell up or not the fans do deserve better so perhaps the billionaire will inject a bit more cash before it’s too late.
Article by James Fisher
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