What is wrong with the Villa How Randy Lerner”s dream is turning into a nightmare
The commentary which accompanies the greatest moment in Aston Villa”s history echoes around Villa Park at every game.
Brian Moore”s words are written across a huge banner that spans the length of the top tier of the North Stand.
“Williams, prepared to venture down the left, there”s a good ball in to Tony Morley… oh, it must be… it is, Peter Withe…”
Uncertain future: Villa take to the field ahead of this month”s home defeat by Liverpool
Whether they were present in Rotterdam or not, what happened next is etched upon the memory of every Aston Villa supporter.
And when the clock ticks over into 2012 in a few hours, the new year will herald the 30th anniversary of the club”s European Cup triumph over Bayern Munich.
Until six years ago, it was a moment that few of a claret and blue persuasion felt would ever be repeated.
Until, that is, American billionaire Randy Lerner announced his arrival into English football at Aston Villa with all the razzmatazz associated with a money man from across the pond.
“Randy knows it will cost to achieve Champions League football,” said Villa”s chief executive officer Richard Fitzgerald at the time.
Committed: US owner Randy Lerner
Splashing the cash showed the former lawyer meant business. Lerner”s commitment stretched to more than the Lion Rampant – Villa”s crest – which is tattooed on his ankle.
For starters, incoming manager Martin O”Neill was handed a 100million transfer budget.
Free coach travel to away matches, free scarves, a 1m spend on the gold mosaic which now adorns the Holte End.
Lerner even paid for every member of that victorious 1982 team to gather once more at Villa Park on the 25th anniversary of their glorious May evening. It all left fans dreaming.
There has been little change at Aston Villa since Randy Lerner took over the club in the summer of 2006 and promised a return to the glory days . . .
Aston Villa”s goals per game
in the Premier League:
Before the takeover – 1.23
After the takeover – 1.38
Villa”s goals conceded in the
Before the takeover – 1.16
After the takeover – 1.25
Villa”s win percentage in the Premier League:
Before the takeover – 37.3 per cent
After the takeover – 37 per cent
Villa”s points per game:
Before the takeover – 1.41
After the takeover – 1.46
Villa”s best League finish:
Before the takeover – second (1992-1993)
After the takeover – sixth (2007-08, 2008-09, 2009-10)
Back in the day, Dave Woodhall, editor of Villa fanzine Heroes and Villans, gushed: “The fans worship the ground Randy Lerner walks on.”
It is, however, a very different Villa at Chelsea. For a start, Lerner is a different sort of owner.
It would be difficult to see how he has not become embittered following a relationship with O”Neill which turned sour.
Having parted company in August 2010, it ended in acrimonious terms last summer when arbitration was needed to sort out a contractual dispute.
Tens of millions of pounds have been frittered away in the transfer market and the decision to bring in Gerard Houllier as the Irishman”s successor was an unmitigated disaster.
It even cost Lerner millions to compensate Houllier following his heart scare in April.
The unpopular appointment of former Birmingham City boss Alex McLeish last summer, which flew in the face ofthe fans” wishes, plus rumours of cutbacks, a transfer budget of negligible proportions and a squad dangerously thin in terms of quality and quantity have left supporters asking one question: Where do we go from here
Lerner, once a regular, has been seenjust twice at Villa Park all season. Supporters” website message boardsare awash with rumours that the American wants out.
That Villa is once more up for grabs.
Unpopular appointment: Alex McLeish was not welcomed by all Villa”s fans
And that the club with the seventh largest stadium and the seventh largest turnover in the Barclays Premier League harbours ambitions to match.
Howard Hodgson, who wrote a report into the failings at the club in 2003 during former chairman Doug Ellis”s regime, echoed the thoughts of many when he said: “I”m sorry to say we are now back where we were when Randy came in. We are also-rans. It”s almost as if the club are saying to us: “Well, we”ve given it a go, now we”ll just go back to mediocrity”.
Costly: Houllier (left) and O”Neill (right) had money to spend
“Surely the powers-that-be must have something more about them than that Thankfully, there”s enough in the side to keep us up. But where”s the plan Where”s the vision
“It”s depressing being a Villa supporter at the moment. It would be a lot easier to stomach if the football was good.
Glory days: Villa hero Peter Withe holds the European Cup aloft in 1982
“Personally, I couldn”t care less where McLeish used to work. But the style is simply awful. There”s no panache. It”s difficult to stomach.”
Lerner has been damned by his own largesse. His spending throughout the reigns of O”Neill and Houllier has been understated.
But it raised expectations and he is now dealing with the fall-out.
Players have routinely trousered contracts in excess of 2m per year. Some at the club earn in excess of 3m.
Perhaps that has contributed to the notion that Villa”s dressing-room has been a law unto itself on occasion.
O”Neill ended up holding Nigel Reo-Coker by the scruff of the neck following a row that turned physical on the training pitch.
Defender Richard Dunne was involved in a heated exchange with Houllier”s assistant Gary McAllister.
McLeish has encountered problems with Scotland midfielder Barry Bannan, who has been convicted of drink-driving, and 8m signing Stephen Ireland since his arrival six months ago.
Record signing: Darren Bent
Lerner should have understood that running a sports business is a thankless task.
His ownership of American football franchise the Cleveland Browns means he is well used to the criticism which accompanies such a high-profile position.
He took the decision to smash Villa”s transfer record with the 24m purchase of Darren Bent 12 months ago.
He was afraid that Houllier was leading the club into the Championship and sanctioned the outlay. But fans are growing increasingly frustrated. They are not the only ones.
After the game against Stoke City on Boxing Day, McLeish made reference to a players” wage bill that has been allowed to “run riot”.
“I”m very much juggling the balls at the moment,” he said. “I”ve always said since the start of the season that we have got to trade carefully. I can”t just go into the market place without there being balance.”
But Villa”s fans have their eyes set towards higher benchmarks.
When they travelled to north London to play Tottenham, they wanted to see more than an uninspiring defensive display – as they did in November.
They want to see Villa on the front foot, as they were in 2008 when O”Neill”s vintage won 2-1 at White Hart Lane.
So far, McLeish”s side have lost to five of the so-called “Big Six” this season. The Scot needs a marquee victory to cement his position.
After failing to score in five of their past seven games, it is difficult to see that record being improved in west London on Saturday against Chelsea.
However, soundings taken from inside the club indicate that Lerner has no interest in selling. There is no external debt.
The billionaire pays the club”s dues by extending his equity and the use of loan notes in a 50-50 split.
Basement boys: Lerner”s Cleveland Browns perennially prop up the AFC North behind Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati
Lerner”s own circumstances have changed considerably, though.
He is now a divorced father of four and has to spend at least six months in Ohio, Cleveland, for personal reasons.
Moreover, along with a number of owners, he is perplexed as to why his devotion is called into question.
He may have attended only two matches at Villa Park but, according to one source, “Isn”t spending 200m on the club pretty good evidence as to his commitment”
Along with other absentee owners, like Nottingham Forest”s Nigel Doughty, for example, Lerner watches live television feeds of Villa”s matches wherever he is in the world.
Moreover, back in America, Lerner comes under fire from supporters of the Browns, who are themselves somewhat critical of the time he invests in his “soccer team”.
He is being pulled in a number of directions, but a highly placed member of Villa”s staff said this week: “We are righting the ship. It”s not sexy. In fact, it”s a bit dull. But that”s where we are. If anything, Randy let his emotions get the better of him when he took over.
“We gambled and possibly extended ourselves a little too far. But the training facilities will last generations. Our corporate facilities are excellent. We are going to adopt a low-risk strategy but it will be one of steady and continual growth. We are in a transitional period but Aston Villa will be better and stronger for it. Success may not be just around the corner but we are building towards it.”
The lions may not be rampant for a while but the message from Villa Park is this: “Don”t turn your backs on us just yet. We will roar once more.”
Sadly, for McLeish and the supporters, it doesn”t look like happening soon.