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Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Aston Villa: How will the fans remember the Randy Lerner years?


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It’s official – Aston Villa are up for sale. The rumour mill had gone into overdrive in Birmingham as fans tried to piece together the jigsaw of what the future held for their club.

It was perhaps the worst kept secret that chairman Randy Lerner was looking to cuts his losses – some reported £100 million worth – and was looking to pass on the club.

The club continues to hold meetings behind closed door and continues to release ridiculous press releases that tell supporters nothing other than the fact “we are in this together”, whilst trying to pretend everything is fine down at Villa Park.

What they fail to understand is the true supporters are not blind, stupid and easily led by their PR-driven drivel, so when Lerner announced he was selling, absolutely no-one was surprised – quite a few were relieved, but no-one was surprised.

Randy lernerRumours were rife before the announcement with everything from Lerner simply having had enough of the life as a Premiership football owner, to his wife-to-be forcing him to sell up because she wasn’t interested in football at all, being the reason behind the sale.

There are already stories circulating that new oil-rich owners are willing to pay the £280 million-odd required to take over at Aston Villa, which would make the club another billionaire’s play-thing.

Whether that happens is yet to be seen but with Lerner having finally admitted he doesn’t have the capacity to take Villa on to the next level, just how will fans look back at his reign?

When he arrived in 2006 he came with all the good blessings of “Deadly” Doug Ellis, who had been getting similar treatment to Lerner during his final few months in charge, after paying £62 million to take over.

Banners with “Ellis Out” could be seen in all pockets of Villa Park because the fans believed "Deadly" could no longer take the club any further – where have we heard that before?

Lerner came in with his billions and with Cleverland Browns American football team in his back pocket. Stories from the US began to filter through about his lack of passion for the club on the other side of Atlantic and how he would soon drag Villa down to the depths of the Premiership.

When he appointed Martin O’Neill as manager within a few weeks of his arrival those rumours were soon quashed and everyone believed things were beginning to look up once again at Villa.

Lerner went on to plough millions into the club’s training ground, infrastructure, hotels and small sections of the stadium. Plans were mooted for a complete rebuild of the North Stand, the last to be modernised at Villa Park, and the club was also behind any proposals to bring back tiered seating, to help fill in the corners of the ground and to increase capacity even further.

Martin-oneilNone of that happened but Villa’s high continued nonetheless when O’Neill began to bring in players of international quality and the club returned to the League Cup final and looked on the brink of Champions League qualification.

The huge impact O’Neill’s free spending had on Lerner cannot be underestimated as he seemed to suddenly realise, almost overnight, how expensive running a Premiership club could be, especially one that could realistically compete for honours on a regular basis.

O’Neill’s departure and the sale of James Milner to Man City clearly signalled to everyone the money had dried up and things were going to change pretty quickly.

Without huge wages O’Neill knew there was nothing more he could do, so he jumped ship.

Houllier was appointed, which raised a few eyebrows at first, but just when the fans were finally starting to see his vision, he had that major health scare and was forced to retire.

During Houllier’s reign Lerner even went out and smashed the club’s record transfer with a fee in the region of £18/£24 million for Darren Bent.

But luck was not on Lerner’s side on that occasion and of course everyone’s main concern was Houllier’s health, so there was no-one to blame when Villa again found themselves managerless.

What followed next seemed to signal the demise of Lerner.

He went out and appointed Alex McLeish as manager - a manager who had relegated rivals Birmingham City twice in three seasons.

But again Lerner backed his man. Having already splashed on Stephen Ireland’s wages, he brought in Shay Given, Charles N’Zogbia and Alan Hutton, who were all enticed by high salaries.

He had to put trust in his manager and although Given always performed well the rest flopped, and with the departures of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, things just seemed to get worse and worse.

After one season the prayers of all Villa supporters were answered when McLeish was relieved of his duties.

No-one believed things could get any worse and despite missing out on Roberto Martinez, the appointment of the young, successful and passionate Paul Lambert seemed to tick all the right boxes.

The purse-strings would still be pulled in but at least Lambert, with his technical German-led coaching badges, would be able to bring nice football back to Villa Park.

That’s what the fans hoped but the situation just continued to deteriorate and the side once again just scraped clear of relegation this season - for the third season running.

LAmbertLambert hasn’t been backed with riches but he has brought in scores of players, and even if they have been cheap the majority of of his signing don’t even make the bench these days – so can the chairman be blamed for that?

Lerner freed himself of the Cleverland Browns in 2012 for more than £600 million, a team he inherited from his father, Al Lerner.

Once that news was announced Villa’s fate was always going to go one of two-ways – he’d either plough more time and effort into his new project, or he’d soon move on.

It turned out to be the later and perhaps the £52 million losses recorded by Villa during the last financial year – and £162 million over the last four years – had a lot to do with it.

To run a successful football club in Premiership you have to have a lot of spare cash and even though Lerner is not short of a few bob he should be praised for leaving when he has.

Financial experts on TV have all said Villa are in a pretty good state, and you only have to look down the road at Small Heath to see how an owner can really destroyed a club, with Birmingham City being a prime example.

Lerner also waived £90.1 million of loans to reduce the club’s debt load, which were converted to equity in December 2013.

Turnover was even up by £3.3 million to £83.7 million for the year ending May 31, in 2013, amazingly driven by higher average league attendance and a semi-final place in League Cup against Bradford City.

A large section of supporters have been waiting to see whether both Lerner and Lambert would go before renewing their season tickets, and perhaps new investment will bring the glory days back to Villa.

You always want the best for your club but in a strange way it would be sad to see Villa become the next Man City.

From a selfish point of view it would be great and of course there would be no real complaints if it were to happen.

But from a pure football perspective you’d have to ask where it will all stop and what effect it would continue to have on the lower league teams, and even those in the Premiership, if Villa were to suddenly go out and start spending hundreds of millions on new players.

But looking back at Lerner’s reign at Villa Park you’d have to say he was fairly unlucky – unlucky to see O’Neill waste so much of his early money on ordinary, over-paid players, unlucky Houllier had a health scare before he had really got going, and unlucky Lambert has not turned out to be the top manager everyone had hoped.

He hasn’t done himself any favours either having hardly visited Aston in the last year – although some would argue, who could blame him – appointing McLeish and continuing to adopt a wall of silence when all the fans want to know is the truth.

What happens now at Villa Park will be anyone’s guess but I suppose the close season will make interesting reading.

Will Lambert still be there in August? Will Villa be the next Man City? Will the youth players ever get a look in again? Will anyone buy the club? Will Villa stay up next season if nothing changes?

All impossible questions to answer at the moment but all are linked to Villa’s immediate future.

 

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Antony Melvin

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