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Lerner deal puts Villa in spotlight

By Graham Hill



When the UK was in the grip of Olympic fever in August, Aston Villa owner Randy Lerner did something that virtually slipped under the radar. He secured a $1billion dollar deal to sell the Cleveland Browns NFL team. Converted into sterling, that is £600million.

Had the world of UK sport not been focused on London 2012, the transaction might have gained more publicity. As it was, only a few eyebrows were raised, some in Birmingham, most in Cleveland. Lerner inherited the Browns when his father Al passed away. It was the reason he had the funds to buy Villa six years ago for just over £60million.

Reading between the lines in the American media, it seems that Lerner sold when he did was to beat new US tax laws. By jumping ship now, he has apparently saved himself £20million. But Lerner has always been associated first and foremost with American football.

Not that he was popular with the Browns fans.

And supporters on both sides of the Atlantic have wondered what the stress levels must be like when you own two major sporting organisations. But now he is in charge of just one - and there is no doubt that he gets a better reception from Villa fans, even if that bond has been put to the test in recent years.

The lingering doubt now is whether the publicity-shy Lerner is tired of being the centre of attention. Because when you are the owner of a top club - Premier League or NFL - that is the unavoidable truth. Opinion is divided as to whether Lerner is preparing to sell Villa as well.

Much depends on whether the appointment of Paul Lambert means that Lerner can remember why he bought the club in the first place. Lerner will hope that Lambert can bring some calm to a club that has suffered a stormy couple of years.

When Lerner moved into Villa Park is it doubtful he could have seen the problems that lay ahead. Certainly times have changed since he bought the club from Doug Ellis in 2006.   Villa fans celebrated.

One, because they now had their very own billionaire owner; two, because he ushered in the arrival of Martin O’Neill to replace the unpopular David O’Leary; and three, because he was not Ellis, who was constantly at odds with the club’s fans over a perceived unwillingness to spend large amounts of money. Then something came along called the credit crunch, otherwise known as the world economic crisis.

Many clubs appeared to ride this storm. Lerner appeared to struggle with it. When he last met the English press in 2010, he alluded to the fact that he had been affected by the recession. There have been personal reasons too. But in football terms, it all went sour.

He and O’Neill appeared a perfect match. But the Irishman’s push to get Villa into the Champions League saw Lerner pump in money to bolster an ever-growing wage bill. In the end, Villa did not make the top four. O’Neill recorded three successive top six finishes, something fans would welcome now.   But in terms of becoming one of Europe’s elite clubs, it was viewed as falling short.

And when James Milner followed Gareth Barry to Manchester City, it brought matters to a head. O’Neill demanded City pay top money for Milner.  But when it became obvious that the manager was not going to be able to spend the cash on a similar player, O’Neill had had enough. A summer of frustration ended with him walking out just before the start of the 2010-2011 season. And from then on, Lerner struggled to keep Villa on an even keel.

Suddenly, he had to find a new manager. And he made a surprise choice in Gerard Houllier. The charming Frenchman seemed to fit the bill as far as Lerner was concerned. He had experience, contacts throughout Europe and appeared to be a man the American could work with. But he also had a history of health problems after suffering a heart attack while at Liverpool. And when a similar incident happened again that season, Lerner had no choice but to let Houllier go. It had not worked out for other reasons, particularly regarding his man-management of players. So it meant another new manager.

But when Villa fans got wind of Lerner’s apparent plans to appoint former England manager Steve McClaren, there was uproar. And, frustratingly for McClaren, preparations to give him the job were shelved. Lerner has never confirmed it, but it is widely thought that supporter reaction was the reason.

However, what he did then appeared to defy logic. Lerner made a move for Alex McLeish, manager of Villa’s city rivals Birmingham. This was a choice that angered the Holte End faithful even more. Historically, Villa have always considered themselves to be a bigger club than Birmingham. But now they were raiding St Andrew’s for a new manager.   Unprecedented protests followed at Villa Park.

But still the appointment of McLeish went ahead at a time when Villa were about to lose two more top players in Ashley Young, who moved to Manchester United, and Liverpool-bound Stewart Downing. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it never looked like an arrangement that would last. McLeish was never going to get a honeymoon period.   But in the end, it was his style of football that failed to get fans onside as much as his Birmingham City connections

McLeish had bad luck, losing key players like Darren Bent and Jermaine Jenas to injury. And his captain, Stilian Petrov, was diagnosed with acute leukaemia in March.   But a second season of flirting relegation was too much for Lerner to stand.

The losses were mounting up and dropping into the Championship was unthinkable. Little wonder he was falling out of love with sport. But now you sense Lerner may just have got it right after appointing Lambert.

Gone are the big earning players collecting thousands a week and not even making it on to the substitutes’ bench. In are young and hungry players with a manageable wage bill. Villa fans will hope that this marks a turning point. And Lerner might just be able to enjoy owning a football club again.