Randy Lerner’s end-game at Aston Villa 11

The Premier League Owl

The Premier League Owl

Remember when Malcolm Glazer bought Manchester United, and those green and yellow scarves started sprouting up all over Old Trafford? And remember, for all intents and purposes, the American’s ownership of the club had no discernible effect on it’s ability to challenge for trophies or commit millions of pounds to annual squad-improvement.

In other words: give football fans the opportunity to moan, and they’re likely to take it.

There’s nothing melodramatic about the Aston Villa fans’ reaction to Randy Lerner though, and his devaluation of their club is a cause worth raging against.

A fair question, given the position the club now finds itself in, would be why Lerner owns a football club at all. Purchasing sports teams is largely seen as an expression of wealth and a form of social posturing, but surely the American isn’t able to draw much credit on his accomplishments in the Midlands?

Lerner lived in England during part of his higher-education, and that’s supposedly from where his interest in football derives. This is no Johny Foreigner with no concept of the game from the supporters’ perspective, this is someone who we can assume has a very clear appreciation for what success are failure are measured by in England.

That makes this all the more bizarre; Lerner is not a Venky’s-style corporation seeking to whore a club out as a vehicle for unspecified financial benefit, he’s a fan – maybe not in the die-hard sense, but a well-wisher all the same.

Here’s a theory, and it’s open to any comments or opinions that any of you are willing to give – but it’s very much for ‘entertainment purposes’ only:

Between 2006, when Lerner bought the club, and 2013, his objectives have changed. When he took the majority shareholding and became Chairman, it was most likely with the purpose of forwarding the club’s development and aiding its progression up the Premier League. That may or may not be true, but his financial commitment in those early days tends to support it. In fact, up until 2010, when Martin O’Neil walked out of Villa Park days before the start of the new season, all seemed well in Midlands.

In the discussions which led to O’Neil’s departure, presumably the dominant theme was of the new financial direction the club was going to take and the financial restrictions which would be applied to his management. O’Neil didn’t like his new working conditions and flounced out – not unfairly, given that he’d been sold one reality on joining the club and was now being presented with one which was entirely different. Since that point, Randy Lerner has employed a succession of managers who, for want of a better description, have appeared to be little more than caretakers of a managed decline. Gerard Houllier and Alex McLeish? Clubs with an attractive sales-pitch wouldn’t even be interviewing those kind of candidates.

It doesn’t take a genius to understand that Lerner was clearly no longer comfortable operating in such rarefied financial air, and wanted to scale back his liability – there’s nothing particularly wrong with that though; it’s his money and his risk.

I read somewhere this morning that Paul Lambert has been assured that, even if the club gets relegated, his job is secure. That’s very alarming. Not for Lambert, because he’s a good young manager who fits the model of ‘doing more with less’ – but it clearly shows that demotion was discussed as a possibility before the season started and would have been on the agenda when Lambert was offered the job. At an interview – in any industry – objectives are laid out as yardsticks of performance, and that would have been the case here. Lambert would have been made aware of the resources at his disposal, and presumably have been given assurances about what would happen if they were too thin to preserve the club’s Premier League status – i.e. he wouldn’t lose his job.

So the obvious question is, that if Lerner was aware of the possible repercussions his austerity measures could have, why he didn’t do more to safeguard the first-team’s future? If, alternatively, he’s aware of the risks but hasn’t the means or desire to mitigate them, then why does he continue to maintain his financial interest in the club?

What might be happening here, and I do stress ‘might’, is a priming for sale. Originally, Lerner spent £62.6m on buying Aston Villa (later rising after additional share acquisitions) and at whatever point he decided to limit his spending (circa 2010) it became apparent to him that he couldn’t sell the club without taking a loss on his original investment. The logic would then be that, by removing the high-earners and developing a younger squad who could potentially develop into a solid Premier League side, the club as an entity would be worth more. The young players being thrust into the first-team ahead of schedule, the marginalisation of those above a certain age; wouldn’t that fit into the theory? The creation of a sleek new Villa, full of potential, low on cost – and playing in a large stadium in a sizeable catchment area.

That may be completely wrong, but if it is, what is Lerner really doing and why is he risking so much to do it?

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