How an American won over English fans

Today, Liverpool will play Aston Villa with the former’s supporters expected to mount a large protest over the increasingly ill-judged handling of the club by their American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Meanwhile, at the weekend, Manchester United’s Chief Executive’s house was attacked by supporters venting their anger at the American ownership via the closest proxy.

But there is one American owner in the Premier League who is revered rather than reviled by supporters, and Liverpool fans won’t need to look far to find him: Randy Lerner at Aston Villa (second from bottom and right in the photo).

Randy Lerner and the Villa board

Rob Hughes, in the International Herald Tribune, believes it’s because Lerner has better understood the culture of English football than the Glazers at Man Utd or Hicks/Gillett at Liverpool.

The owners buy in for all manner of personal reasons. But do they understand what they are getting into? Do they understand the English, or the culture in which one’s soccer team is very often an extension of one’s pride and personality?

Randy Lerner may, because he studied at Cambridge University in 1983. A graduate of Columbia Law School in New York, the heir to his father’s billions and owner of the Cleveland Browns NFL franchise, Lerner’s year at Cambridge introduced him to English football.

When he came to buy Aston Villa, he understood that it was one of the founding clubs of English soccer. He could see that the stadium modernization was complete, and the team needed capital investment. The fans see that Lerner, together with the coach, Martin O’Neill, are in it for the long term.

In the Daily Mail, Neil Moxley continues on this theme, as he says “it is difficult to criticise any of Lerner’s major decisions.”

Doug Ellis, watching his pennies before selling up, had scaled down plans for rebuilding the training ground. After Lerner consulted Martin O’Neill, they were revised.

Villa’s players can now enjoy a swim in the hydrotherapy pool, use a huge range of fitness and rehabilitation equipment or enjoy a game of snooker.

The historic Holte pub at the corner of the Trinity Road and Witton Lane had lain disused for years. Boarded up and unloved, Lerner decided it was an integral part of Villa’s history and spent £4m restoring it. He will never make a profit; it was a gesture to fans.

Last season, before the Sheffield United game, the European Cup-winning team of 1982 were paraded at Villa Park. He paid every player’s expenses, plus £1,000 for turning up and and treated them and their wives to a weekend in a four-star hotel. He didn’t need to do any of that. The atmosphere was incredible. Villa duly thumped the Blades.

Even 1981 Championship – winning boss Ron Saunders, who refused point-blank to set foot in Villa Park while Ellis was in charge, was cajoled back and took a lap of honour before last season’s game with Manchester United.

“The fans worship the ground Randy walks on,” said Dave Woodhall of fanzine Heroes and Villains.

“He can’t do anything wrong. He’s got the common touch. He and his staff have tapped into the fans’ mentality. Free scarves, free coaches to Chelsea, refurbishing the Holte pub — and it seems like he genuinely cares.”

So, could the Glazers and Hicks/Gillett have avoided their growing unpopularity with Man Utd and Liverpool players with a little philanthropy and by use of the “common touch”?

I think they could have earned a little more sympathy, yes. But the key difference resides in the fact Lerner invested his own capital and did not land Aston Villa into hundreds of millions of pounds in debt, as happened at both Liverpool and Man Utd. It has seemed apparent from the get-go that the latter cases were leveraged buy-outs attempting to soon cash-in on the clubs’ rising value, banking on the growing global financial strength and appeal of the Premier League.

Those supporters who didn’t see through that from day one — and Liverpool fans did not cover themselves in glory by rashly welcoming Gillett and Hicks with pretty solid support initially — are regretting that now.

Supporters of the major clubs should care more about an owner’s intentions and funding and not his nationality, as the price of Premier League teams means local lifetime billionaire fans are thin on the ground. Whether an owner is American or not does not determine how he will treat the team: where the money comes from and the likely consequences of this is much more telling.

Photo credit: gazjones123123

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