Is Randy Lerner selling Aston Villa a case of being careful what you wish for?
Much was made by Doug Ellis about the passing-on of Aston Villa into safe hands when he finally sold up in 2006. Mr Randy Lerner was a nice man, who would spend his money on Villa and he even had a Villa tattoo. The Villa faithful were happy and Deadly was smugly thinking he was the savior of the club, despite the groundswell of supporters wanting him out.
Randy Lerner had the distinction of owning both an English Premier League team and also an NFL team in the Cleveland Browns. In 2012 though, he took the step of selling his troubled Cleveland Brown NFL franchise; a team starved of success and desperately in need of a shot in the arm. Lerner had owned the club for 10 years, taking over from his father Al, after he had passed away in 2002.
Whether Lerner’s expensive divorce had prompted the sale or if he’d considered running the Browns a thankless task, the Brown’s fans didn’t care. Having already labelled their own stadium the ‘Factory of Sadness’, they wanted Lerner out.
There’s a cautionary tale for Aston Villa in what happened to the Cleveland Browns after Lerner sold them to their new owner Jimmy Haslam. What had been seen as a new dawn for the long-suffering Brown’s fans has seen even more chaos at the club and further suffering for the faithful Dawg Pound (think Holte Enders).
The club has seen a turnaround of head coaches to match the merry-go-round of managers at Fulham. A general manager and CEO have been sacked and owner Haslam has been under investigation by the FBI. Haslam’s company Pilot Flying J actually had its offices raided by the FBI, for illegally withholding millions of dollars in fuel rebates due to trucking customers. So far seven employees have been done for fraud with the company reported to have reached a settlement to the value of $85 million with over 5000 customers. Of course, when you’re a billionaire you normally have a legal team in place that makes sure you escape the rap yourself.
However, the knives are out for Haslam now and he’s been shown up as a bad example of billionaire sports owners that has strong parallels with the increasing influx of sugar daddy owners in the Premier League. A damning report in NBC Sports’ Rotoworld.com described Haslam in less than flattering terms:
‘He’s everything that’s wrong with the modern owner. Haslam is an arrogant, rash, amoral man who believes the law doesn’t apply to him. Someone who will cut as many corners as necessary to ensure he gets as many dollars as possible. Someone who — allegedly, of course — spent years ripping off the exact kind of people who make up the bedrock NFL fandom, a bedrock that is gradually being priced out of attending games.”
The familiar tune of corporate greed pricing out the supporter is already a well-worn theme in football this side of the Atlantic. Most Villa fans though will see any potential new Villa ownership in the simplistic terms of increased transfer funds for whoever is Villa manager next season. But who knows what lurks around the corner? Look what happened at Cardiff City and Hull City in terms of their owners trying to make the club fall into their overall corporate strategy at the expense of the club’s tradition. Stadium naming rights could be on the agenda, something that Lerner has resisted (up to now), there could be drastic ticket price increases and if the new owners have a brand already, they may try to integrate Aston Villa into it (remember the Red Bull rumours?). New owners bring new plans and they’ll always have an eye on getting the most out of their investment.
Of course, if Lerner sells, he’ll say something about selling it to someone who’ll have the club’s interests at heart. This though is unrealistic in practice, as it’s not as if they’ll be a queue of potential suitors for the club, as not everyone has the cash to stump up to buy a football club. Beggars can’t be choosers. Also, Lerner’s judgement in football matters so far, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
I’m playing devil’s advocate with the ‘be careful for what you wish for’ sentiment of this article and it’s hard to subscribe to the notion of ‘better the devil you know’ in this case. Quite simply put, there has to be more ambition shown by the club, whoever is in charge.