Randy's steep learning curve at Villa
Randy Lerner, one of the first Americans lured by the idea of making easy money from the English football broadcast boom, will mark the seventh anniversary of his purchase of Aston Villa next month. There is unlikely to be a repeat of the razzamatazz and universal approval that greeted his arrival in 2006. Neither he nor a large proportion of the club's fan base will feel the urge to celebrate the occasion.
Lerner has arrived at a crucial point of his journey with the Premier League club. It began with him cast as the Midlands Messiah, when he salved the exasperation of Villa supporters by buying out the unpopular Doug Ellis, but he was such a sure-fire winner then. Anyone was preferable to Ellis the 80-year-old despot, but Lerner has now become a divisive figure.
The rights of his first four years, the bold ambition of over £100 million in player investment and a billionaire rating on the Forbes rich list have been replaced by the wrongs of head-scratching managerial appointments, financial decline, spiralling bills and a wage-to-revenue ratio that was once one of the highest in the Premier League, at around 90 percent. There have been three unwanted brushes with relegation, and a feeling has developed that every pound Lerner throws into the Villa Park coffers only serves the purpose of ensuring the club do just enough to remain on the safe side of the top-flight trapdoor.
How should Lerner's time in the vanguard of American owners be viewed? Is he an American punter who took his shot at making Villa a self-sustaining business and failed, due to his lack of knowledge and inability to fully grasp the English football business? Or has he had his fingers burned and as a result is now keeping his hands firmly in his pocket?
Lerner could rightly point to numerous correct decisions made on the football side of the business. He spawned an age of optimism by appointing Martin O'Neill in 2006, and three successive sixth-place finishes are proof of the rapid progress made and his commitment to progress, following the miserable final months of David O'Leary's stint as manager.
The club's Bodymoor Heath training complex is unrecognisable from the days of "Deadly Doug" thanks to Lerner's £18 million redevelopment, and the academy is one of the most vaunted in the Premier League. Corporate facilities at Villa Park are among the best in the league and the renovation of the Holte End pub, where Lerner used to hold his annual and enjoyable end-of-season media debriefs, curried instant favour. This was a man with a sense of the club's proud heritage and standing within the English game. He even has a tattoo of the rampant lion from the club's crest on his ankle. What Villa fan could not love him?
Not so many seem to love him now. From the point of the third qualification in succession for the Europa League and the bumps and bruises on Lerner's scalp from crashing his head against the glass ceiling which prevented progress to the Premier League top-four penthouse, things have been going downhill. The failure to break into the top four brought a reality check that led to a parting of the ways with O'Neill over a disagreement in how the club should progress. Villa's current position can be traced back to that watershed moment in 2010.
Latest figures suggest Lerner is owed £130 million in loans he made to the club. He injected a similar sum as equity on top of the £62 million cost of buying out Ellis. It seems you do not get much for over £300 million these days in the Premier League. Lerner already has one failed ownership on his CV with the Cleveland Browns. One fan accused him of showing "incompetent ownership that lacked either the knowledge or ability, or maybe both, to run a National Football League team," before he finally sold the organisation -- which he had inherited from his father, Al -- for £620 million last year. Certainly at Villa appointing Gerard Houllier and Alex McLeish as managers, after losing the guidance of Steve Stride as chief executive, pointed to a lack of a true grasp, especially given the fans' opposition to McLeish.
The lack of a real football man alongside Lerner to fill the gaps in his knowledge and to curb his enthusiasm has been expensive. Since the parting of the ways with O'Neill there have been constant operating losses. The £17 million negative announced for last season represents an improvement on the £54 million, £38 million and £47 million lost in the previous three years. The sales of England internationals Gareth Barry, Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and James Milner for fees totalling close to £60 million have merely presented an even larger financial obligation and led to further accusations of a lack of ambition. What happens with Christian Benteke will either endorse or provide an argument against that theory.
On one side of the fence Lerner is castigated by Villa fans for taking them to the brink of the top four and failing to follow through with further investment. He stands accused of leaving Villa in the same state of inertia they were experiencing under Ellis. Operating the club on remote control from his base in America is greeted with suspicion. The lack of regular public comments and appearances at Villa Park -- largely because of a divorce which means he spends six months of the year on the other side of the Atlantic to be with his four children -- means the conclusion has been reached by many that Lerner no longer has his heart and soul in the club.
Those on the other side feel Lerner has been badly served by overindulging O'Neill and is now dealing with the consequences of paying bloated wages and inflated transfer fees for the likes of Marlon Harewood, Curtis Davies, Zat Knight, Habib Beye, Luke Young and Steve Sidwell, players who were never capable of taking Villa anywhere near the American's goal of Champions League football. In this period of austerity, ridding the wage bill of the £3 million contracts of Stephen Ireland, Darren Bent and Shay Given is a necessary move to enable the club to be run along more prudent and cost-effective lines.
Heavy investment has been replaced by a completely new approach, which began last season under Paul Lambert. Youthful talent, at modest prices, which has the capability of developing under the Scot, is the new way forward. That gamble was blowing in the wind for many months last season until Villa confirmed survival, largely thanks to Benteke's goals. Lambert's determination to stick rigidly to his principles was as admirable as it was nerve-wracking.
For Lerner to make an impact on English football beyond his early years, Lambert's policy and talent spotting has to make significant progress this season. Villa's long-term future and Lerner's continued leadership will depend heavily on it. There have been plenty of rumours of the 51-year-old considering selling up, even though he claims to still be committed to the job he started. Finishes of 16th and 15th in the Premier League for the last two years are a mediocrity that cannot represent value for money for Lerner's considerable investment.