David Wangerin ponders John Gregory's departure from Villa Park – were Doug Ellis's tight purse strings to blame?
In February 1998 Aston Villa manager Brian Little was preparing to give a routine press conference about his plans and hopes for the rest of the season when he received an urgent phone call from chairman Doug Ellis. Little made his excuses to the reporters and disappeared, returning an hour or so later to say he had just resigned. Four years later, Aston Villa’s latest manager John Gregory is asked about relations with his notorious chairman. “Have I ever been tempted to walk away in frustration?” he is quoted as saying. “No, never. It’s a thing I’d never do.” Days later he walks away – apparently in frustration.
Gregory departed as Villa’s longest-serving manager under the Ellis regime, and the first to guide the team to the FA Cup final since 1957. Yet attention is sure to be focused less on the escapee than on the man who let him get away. While Villa fans have been pointing angry fingers at Deadly Doug for decades, the peculiarly sudden departure of Gregory, who had Villa sitting atop the Premiership three months before his exit, is likely to fuel an increasingly hostile attitude toward Ellis and his frugal approach to big-time football.
Those least enamoured of Ellis tend to produce a spiel about Villa being a “massive club” with “the potential to be right up there with the Arsenals and Liverpools” if only the chairman would open his wallet and start peppering the subs’ bench with big names. Of course, such an accusation could equally be levelled at half the clubs in the Premiership.
Conveniently forgotten among the hysteria is the plight of Nottingham Forest, once a “massive” club in their own right (and certainly more akin to Aston Villa than Liverpool or Arsenal), now fighting for their very existence. It is possible that Ellis has kept a watchful eye on events at the City Ground, recalling the European Cups that Forest’s John McGovern lifted but a few seasons prior to Villa’s Dennis Mortimer doing the same.
That might paint too sympathetic a picture of the 78-year-old Ellis, the longest-serving chairman in the Premiership. The demands of running a modern day top-flight club have surely grown exponentially since his early days at Villa Park, and the attitude towards debt has probably moved beyond what he is familiar with. If Ellis is incapable of raising the cash to strengthen the squad, and if he loves the club as much as he claims to, then he probably needs to give way to a party with deeper pockets. Running a tight ship is of no use if it never reaches its port of call.
But there is more to the Ellis story than just Villa’s inability to recruit. Gareth Southgate, Ugo Ehiogu and David James have all left the club recently after expressing concern over the club’s lack of ambition. Given that none went to clubs noticeably more likely to win trophies, the real reason for their departures is moot. But even if “lack of ambition” was actually just a euphemism for lack of salary, the loss of three such players does not point to a chairman who inspires confidence.
Gregory may have possessed all the charm of a cactus and may not have brought any silverware to Villa Park, but his loss seems to have struck a nerve – particularly since he too seems likely to link up with a club in a worse position than Villa. The public feuds with Ellis endeared him to many Villa die-hards, and relatively few of his purchases have resulted in the type of Savo Milosevic-esque ignominy which ruined his predecessor, Brian Little (though the jury’s still out on Bosko Balaban).
No manager is ever entirely satisfied with the funds available to him, so it’s hard to imagine just what could have changed his mind so emphatically in such a short space of time. At Villa, conversations between chairman and manager are, it would seem, fragile affairs.
From WSC 181 March 2002. What was happening this month