Fit and Proper – Randy Lerner, Aston Villa

“Anybody buying a football club should regard himself as a custodian for supporters who care very deeply about it” – Randy Lerner

Randy Lerner might sound more like a character you would find in a Carry On film than an American billionaire, but the improved fortunes of Aston Villa since the Brooklyn-born tycoon took the reigns have had Villa fans cackling like Sid James himself. Lerner’s company, Reform Acquisitions LLP, completed a £62.6m takeover in August 2006 which secured the lawyer-turned-businessman a majority stake of 56.85% of shares in the Birmingham club. Lerner assumed full control one month later by boosting his stake to 90%. During the three and a half years since coming to power at Villa Park, Lerner has spent a significant amount in order to establish The Villans as a consistent top six Premier League side, whilst harboring ambitions to take the Midlands club even higher. For the adoring Villa Park faithful, the Lerner era thus far is a far cry from the regime of ‘deadly’ Doug Ellis, whose 24 year tenure as Chairman can euphemistically be described as ‘turbulent’.

Lerner’s fortune, an estimated $1.5 billion (around £800m) was inherited from his father, the late Al Lerner, who made his millions with credit card company MBNA. On the elder Lerner’s death in 2002, his son took on not only a large part of his wealth, but also the ownership of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns American football franchise. Indeed, Randy Lerner has shown himself to be an enthusiastic fan of sports on both sides of the Atlantic. Having been a keen follower of English football since spending a spell studying at Cambridge during the early 1980s, Lerner initially considered investing in Fulham (even going as far as to meet with Mohammed Al Fayed in 2004.) Ultimately Villa offered, in the words of the man himself, “the right opportunity”.

In stark contrast to certain other American owners of Premier League teams, Randy Lerner is arguably the proprietor most beloved by his team’s supporters. Beyond the Holte End, he is revered by neutrals as the perfect owner. There are numerous reasons why Lerner has endeared himself to Aston Villa fans. The most obvious of these is the dramatic improvement on the pitch, with Lerner being generous with the purse strings (money from his own pocket it should be added) to allow Martin O’Neill to bring in quality players of the calibre of Ashley Young, Stilian Petrov and James Milner. Villa’s net spending since Lerner replaced Ellis is in the region of £30m (matching in three years what Ellis had spent over the course of the previous six seasons), and the club’s wage bill has increased by 124% since 2006. The dramatic increase in expenditure has yielded positive results, with Villa finishing sixth in each of the last two seasons, a feat they had only managed once this decade prior to the American’s arrival.

Where other owners have liked to cultivate a reputation for being outspoken, or for been rumored to have meddled with their manager’s team selection and transfer policy, Randy Lerner has been the very epitome of the ‘hands off’ boss, allowing O’Neill to run team affairs, while carefully and deliberately remaining out of the media glare when possible: “I don’t believe I belong in the media and I fundamentally do not believe that owning a team is a media platform” he told the Birmingham Post in a rare interview in February 2007.

The American’s investment in the club extends beyond the team however. The training facilities have been overhauled, with a hydrotherapy pool being the most notable addition. £4m was spent on restoring the Holte pub, a Victorian tavern adjacent to the stadium and proud part of the Birmingham club’s proud history which had been allowed to fall into disrepair. Lerner appears to be genuinely passionate about all things Aston Villa. He is not involved in football to make a profit, and the commitment shown to improving every aspect of the club, on and off the pitch, has been the driving factor in the fans taking him so readily to their hearts.

Does Lerner seem too good to be true? Are there any signs of the honeymoon period drawing to an end? There are faint rumblings of potential strife if one strains to look closely enough. Villa has been vying for the billionaire’s affections with its American cousin the Cleveland Browns, and discontent with this arrangement has surfaced on both sides of the pond. An increasing number of Browns fans have accused their owner of neglecting the NFL team, in favor of their British counterparts with a 2009 petition complaining about Lerner’s treatment of the franchise garnering 2000 signatures. It has also been noted in Birmingham however, that the American has been less visible at Villa Park this season than in previous years, prompting Martin O’Neill, in an interview with the Daily Mirror, to reassure Villa fans that the chairman was as committed as ever to the Villans’ progress.

Lerner’s relationship with the Cleveland Browns provides an interesting contrast to his current hero status in the Holte End. While the “hands off” approach won admiration with Browns fans when times were good, such a tactic can easily be mistaken for neglect when the going gets tough. With the Browns winning just two of 13 NFL games this season and missing out on the play offs for a record-tying fifth consecutive season, Lerner was faced, in November this year, with more stinging criticism from US fans – one blogger at American football website accused him of “ignoring the customer” and “skirting the issue” of Cleveland’s poor season. It will be interesting to see how Lerner conducts himself if Villa’s fortunes ever encounter such a prolonged downturn.

For now however, the dream is still very much alive, with the team flying high once again in the Premier League. The man himself has still yet to put a foot wrong in English football, and while this remains the case, Randy Lerner will stay the toast of the claret half of the second city for some time to come.

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