There's added optimism at Villa Park as the club finally get rid of Deadly Doug and have a manager worthy of the Champions League. Dave Woodhall reports on the American revolution about to take place in the Midlands
Just a few weeks ago, Villa fans were looking forward to the forthcoming season with unremitting gloom. David O’Leary’s appalling football had led to the club’s worst Premiership season, his constant talking-down of the club had destroyed morale and Doug Ellis was seemingly as immovable as ever. Now we’ve got the best British manager, billionaires are vying to throw money at us and the only real problem is that we might not have anything to moan about between now and May.
Matters came to a head in mid-July, when a statement purporting to come from the playing staff was leaked to a local pressman. This stated that Doug Ellis’s lack of ambition was holding the club back and gave several examples of cost-cutting, ranging from a refusal to authorise the watering of training pitches, to a member of the coaching staff having to buy his own cup of coffee while on club business.
An internal inquiry was set up to establish the cause of the unrest. To no one’s surprise, no culprits were identified, but David O’Leary was soon leaving by “mutual consent”. The full reason for O’Leary’s departure remains unclear, but it seems that he had been outsmarted by a chairman who, so speculation went, had been desperate to sack him but couldn’t afford the full compensation to which O’Leary would have normally been entitled.
And while all this was going on, a bidding war had started. There have been sporadic attempts to oust Ellis over the years, but these have tended to fizzle out with the next three points. Doug announced some time ago that he had appointed merchant bankers Rothschild’s to seek buyers for his controlling interest in the club and in the aftermath of O’Leary’s departure it was announced that several bidders were seriously interested.
Mike Neville, a life-long supporter of the sort that always pops up at such times, opened the bidding with an offer reportedly valuing the club at £64 million. Randy Lerner, owner of the Cleveland Browns NFL team and reputed to be worth $1.2 billion since the sale of his MBNA bank, was then said to be interested. Lerner came to England, met Doug, promptly withdrew his interest and was then lured back around the table, quite likely by promises that he wouldn’t have to deal with Doug any more, thereby being saved tales of meetings with Nelson Mandela and the invention of the bicycle kick. The AV06 consortium, led by High Court judge Nicholas Padfield QC, countered with an approach that promised to provide £50m for transfer funds, while further interest came from Athole Still, agent of, among others, Sven-Göran Eriksson.
While the boardroom wrangles continued, matters elsewhere moved towards an amazing conclusion. While it was reckoned by many that no decent manager would take the job, Martin O’Neill was appointed on August 4. Meanwhile, the arrival of Lerner as new Villa owner seems imminent. American takeovers have long been unpopular here, with clubs ranging from Manchester United to Newport County experiencing various problems from such involvement. Lerner and his fortune, though, will be welcomed with open arms by supporters desperate for success.
Ellis’s time in charge at Villa Park has been the subject of debate for almost every day of his almost-24-year reign. It’s well documented that his three-year exile from Villa Park culminated in European Cup triumph and when he came back relegation followed with almost indecent haste. Since then, Villa have flirted with both triumph and disaster, and, in truth, seemed to find neither to their liking. Supporters of other clubs will doubtless be scratching their heads, wondering why one of the finest managers in the game and an ever-increasing number of billionaires seem to want to get involved with this nondescript midlands club whose best days were before the First World War. Although there’s a tendency among Villa supporters to believe that the simple removal of Ellis will lead to an unstoppable rise into the higher echelons, even the most cynical among us is now feeling optimistic, for the first time this century.
From WSC 235 September 2006. What was happening this month