In 2019 I released a book, Fear Conquers All, about my life, my struggles with brain aches and operations (14 so far!) and how to face setbacks full-on and fight back. It has gone down so well, you can see from the 28 five star reviews!
The strapline is Get up – Get out – Live.
I guess in these COVID times, it should be Get up – stay in unless you have permission – live!
Anyway, I thought I would serialise the Aston Villa parts of the book here on Vital Villa.
The Villa part begins in Chapter 16, following numerous operations, a near loss of life, a total conspiracy to cover up the fact I had never been put on the hospital waiting list and all sorts of other fascinating occurrences. This is the part of the life story where I find myself devoid of things to do, devoid of health, and wondering what was next so……….
Chapter 16 Part Three – Looking At Options To Buy Aston Villa! (More to come as I continue the serialisation on the buying options) The HH I am writing about here, is HH snr.
Howard is another, much like Carl and Buck Chinn, who also played a big part (I think without realising) in me getting my confidence back and finding my level. Howard is a very successful businessman and author. You may have heard of the American hit TV show Six Feet Under? That came from the pen of HH. We got on like a house on fire from the start and I always enjoy when our paths cross still. After this particular public meeting, he spoke to my parents about his admiration for me. They were only too happy to relay that back to me. I was full of self-doubt at the time and I just felt like I was just getting by. I would concentrate more on not falling over or passing out, forgetting my words or blanking than thinking what sort of impression I was leaving.
A meeting was held between just four of us, in order to explore the possibility of setting up a vehicle to try to raise the funds to buy Aston Villa. We did it with heavy hearts, knowing the hard work and politics involved and really didn’t want to be having to resort to this. But it seemed the only avenue. One of the guys at the meeting said that any press release I wrote should be run by him first. Now he was the last one in, this was the first time any of us had met him and I sat there a bit stunned. But I didn’t have much time to feel like that, because Howard paid me another massive compliment. ‘Jonathan doesn’t need to run anything past anyone. He’s the man whose been doing all the press successfully already. I trust him 100%.’ These are the sorts of things that did, piece by piece, give me ‘my place back’ in the pecking order of life.
I also met the broadcaster and journalist Johnny Gould at the second public protest meeting. I sat down on stage by him – dizzy and a bit exhausted – put my walking stick under my chair and just sat there. Didn’t say anything to him or anyone else, I was just focused on the speech I had to make. Then I started to ‘come round’ to my surroundings. I realised Johnny was sitting there, he might have wondered at that point quite who or what this strange trembling character was sitting next to him. A few minutes passed. I thought, ‘Well, I need to say something!’ A few more minutes passed and it turned into ‘is it too late to say something’ until it just got ridiculous, so I put my hand out and said, “Hi, I’m Fear.” Great guy, boundless energy and enthusiasm and we got on like long lost friends once I bothered to say hello. He even came to a few games with me. He called my seat ‘The Leader of the Opposition’ due to where it was on the front row. I liked that.
We held a march before a game against Southampton on 25th November 2003, where a few thousand marched from the Aston Parish Church to under the Trinity Road Stand. As we got up to the top of Trinity Road, the police had lined the street. Some fans started arguing with them, so I had to quickly step in and explain to them that a lot of these policemen were Villa fans as well. We’d organised the march correctly and my colleague Naz had informed them of the march (as you are meant to), so they’d lined up perfectly in order for most of the crowd to be underneath the one part of the stand, so the noise of the chants was far louder due to the echoes. Visually and noise-wise, the march was a great success. However, as others have also said over the years, if you sing “Ellis Out”, the only word Doug used to hear was ‘Ellis’.
Just before, Graham Taylor (now also very sadly departed, a huge loss to football) had given us yet more fuel saying, “I was manager of a club who were run by the chairman/chief executive, Doug Ellis, for Doug Ellis and on behalf of Doug Ellis.”
I had some lovely exchanges with Graham, both in letters, then emails and also a couple of very appreciated phone calls from the great man.
The march was the furthest I’d walked for 10 years. I was shattered at the end of it. However, another tick in the box for not being beaten by my limitations. There were days after when I could recover (and would need to) but that day was to push the limits.
All of this got national attention, both in the printed press and TV and radio. The only paper that didn’t cover us was the Birmingham Evening Mail. The main Villa reporter at the time was far too close to the club and the sports editor wasn’t the strongest of characters. Another reporter who just happened to be a lifelong Villa fan, Lisa Smith, tried her best to get the paper to cover it, but they refused. Funnily enough, when the takeover finally happened this came back to bite them because the new regime respected the help I’d given and found out what the Mail had done. I will point out it is totally different now, and I’ve a very good relationship with their main sports writers.
On and on the protests went, but the trouble was, as much as we shouted, ‘We want Ellis out!’ we couldn’t answer the question ‘Who in?’ because no one was really coming forward.
Doug could have played a very clever game really. Personally, all I wanted was for him to signal his intent to sell the club IF the right offer came, but he wouldn’t. At several AGMs (Aston Villa had been listed as a PLC, which was a disastrous investment for most), we called for just that. He should have just said, ‘Yes, of course I would listen to the right offers.’ But Doug didn’t want to sell the club and although it was a PLC, he was the majority shareholder.
Another compliment that impacted on me massively (and probably isn’t even remembered by the person who paid me it) was from David Carson. He’d come to the first meeting with his brother, Robert, both of whom (and their older brother, Andrew) are now close friends. After that first meeting, he became actively involved in the ‘struggle’ against Doug. He’s a great guy, a very impressive character, Cambridge-educated and a top City corporate lawyer.
At one AGM, I was looking to pass around the questions to all the different gents involved, so it didn’t look like it was all me and that I was on some sort of ego trip. David looked at the question and said, ‘Can you do it JF? You’re the one with the balls.’ Boom. Another building block. Actually, this, along with the other ‘little’ moments, takes me back to an earlier chapter, when I said you must never miss the moments in a day. I certainly didn’t miss that one. I was slowly figuring out, ill or not, that I did have something worthwhile to contribute in life and had started to build a bit of much needed self-respect.
By this point, I’d been made the Chairman of the Aston Villa Shareholders Association. Another massive compliment, because Buck Chinn had put so much time, effort and love into the Association. At the meeting at which I was elected, he explained he’d waited a good few years for someone to come along to take the helm. He said, ‘I propose John,’ and I was sitting there, dumbly nodding my agreement.
No, not at all, I thought he meant another ‘John’ at the meeting, a gent called John Holder who was Chairman of the Gloucester Lions Club. When I realised they were all looking at me not Mr. H, I was gobsmacked (and embarrassed at the fact I was sitting there nodding in agreement!!!) It was a nice moment though, a great compliment from Buck and, with Dennis Mortimer in attendance, it was even more special.
It was formally ratified at an AGM held 30th April 2004 at the Irish Centre, Deritend, Birmingham. The reason we did it there was that we had resolved to give two players who were leaving Villa a ‘testimonial night’ for their long year service to Aston Villa. The club had refused, in typical penny-pinching fashion, but there was no way our captain Ian Taylor (1994-2003) wasn’t getting something. So we did it.
We also put Alan Wright (1995-2003) in the event, but he let us down not turning up, not contacting us to say he wasn’t able to come and not sending even a word of thanks for a lovely book of good wishes we’d made up for him, along with a signed limited-edition Mackenzie Thorpe framed picture (all bought at the expense of the fans). Oh, and thanks to him, when I got home from what was a fabulous night, I was informed that one of the other sites was accusing me of fraud, saying I knew Alan Wright wasn’t going to be there. I knew no such thing. Not nice that, in fact a real low blow, and totally unnecessary. Sadly, that’s the internet for you: loads of good honest decent folk but there are those who just seem hell-bent on being negative and destructive.
Ian Taylor was a total gentleman and didn’t let us down. It was fascinating how humble he was, actually. He pulled up with his mate, who had driven him. I went out and said hello and asked if he was ready. He asked if he could just have a few minutes. I said, ‘Yes, of course,’ thinking he was waiting for a phone call or whatever. Turns out actually he just wasn’t used to being the centre of attention in this sort of thing. He used to run out at Villa Park in front of 40 000 or more fans but that was doing what he did best, being a player and quite often for us our team captain. But this was new to him.
What a lovely night it was. Buck and Carl were there, a good few of the Shareholders Association members, our legend Dennis Mortimer came and we also had Johnny Gould and Howard Hodgson in attendance. I’m so glad we did that. It wasn’t the testimonial Ian deserved, but it was something. I did get a bit paranoid about the Mackenzie Thorpe picture we’d bought him. Bearing in mind he was leaving Aston Villa, the club he had supported man and boy, the title might have gone down badly really if not for the fact it’s just a great picture. What was the title of it? Won’t Someone Play with Me? Google it, it is lovely; I know, I got one for myself as well, many years later.
I formed a lovely relationship in the end with Buck and I miss him greatly. We were kindred spirits; he’d been seen by many as the trade union leader for Aston Villa back in the day and always fought for our rights. A South African fan (who became a good friend some years later), called Reza, paid me a similar compliment by telling me, ‘You’re like our trade union leader.’ Not my intention to be anything really, but I do try my best to help out fans when issues come up and will stick up for us as a fan base with great fervour if anyone else tries to put us down.
We carried on battling, some just ‘straight’ protests. One year, we handed out 20 000 A4-sized posters. On one side were the facts as we saw them about Doug, while the other side was just red. The idea was to give Doug ‘the red card’. I wish I had a picture of the Holte End Stand that day because it was literally covered in red. What a great visual.
I did make a bit of a balls up on it though. The well-known Villa photographer, Terry Weir, had sadly passed and totally innocently – and with the memory of him taking the photos of me holding the League Cup at the forefront of my mind – I had ‘RIP Terry Weir. A true Villa Man’ put on the front. I got slated by just a very few, but they were ferocious about it. With that said, they were pretty ferocious about anything I (or any of VFC) did! I’ll hold my hands up, it was a nice innocent idea to show respects but on a protest sheet, perhaps not the most suitable place.
Along with the straight protests, ‘Ellis Out’ banners, press agitation etc. that we did, we also undertook to add resolutions to the Aston Villa AGM. I’d forgotten about this until I looked through my old folder of press clippings, letters and protest details to research this chapter. I say ‘forgotten’, I probably buried the memory because I had to do the lion’s share of the chasing and work – helped by the expertise of the lawyer amongst us, David Carson – and I am not sure we’d realised quite how much work would be involved.
Still, we managed it. Just. We had to get the requisite numbers of shareholders with the necessary value of shares to do this. We knew the resolutions would just be voted down by Doug, the majority shareholder, but again it showed we were a professional protest group, got national press attention and also showed we were coming at them from all angles.
I was growing somewhat tired of saying the same things through VFC and also the Shareholders Association though. At the last AGM, I staged a ‘walkout’. It wasn’t really a walkout at all, but I had briefed a few of the press what I was going to do and sure enough, it made the news. If truth be told, I’d asked all the questions I had intended and I had another appointment. I got up and said that I wished Doug a long and happy retirement (there was no malice, we had exchanged letters and we both knew the other had suffered ill health and wished each other well but the salient point was RETIREMENT… go, leave, retire, be gone!) and said how befitting the backdrop behind them was black, because it looked very much like a funeral, adding, ‘And the club is certainly dying.’
I walked out. I reckon about 10 people walked out with me, maybe a few more (maybe they had appointments as well?) but when it was reported in the national press it was ‘Villa fans walk out of AGM in disgust.’
Job done and yes, I got to my other appointment – an excruciating massage.
On the night of the AGM when I’d wished Doug a long and happy retirement, some fan rang the Tom Ross show and said I’d wished Doug dead. I only found out about it when it was mentioned on my forum the day after. I thought about ringing the phone-in the week after, or if I’d contacted Tom, I have no doubt at all that he’d have given me a slot to put the record straight. I decided I wasn’t going to justify such a horrible accusation though. No one who knew me, including the press with whom I dealt, would believe I had such an agenda and nor did anyone involved with the campaign back then.
My solution was to write to Doug and make sure he hadn’t got the impression I’d done any such thing. He wasn’t an evil person, he wasn’t on death row for goodness sake, he was just a chairman/owner whom we felt was holding back the club. Someone at the AGM had asked rather clumsily – albeit a valid question – if he had a succession plan in place should his health decline more. It was not me.
Doug answered (see overleaf) and I was satisfied that he knew no one involved with VFC or The Aston Villa Shareholders Association had been so rude. I have standards, as did the others involved. I’d have been out of all that like a shot if anyone had wished ill health (or worse) on the owner, or anyone else for that matter.
We kept chipping away and just as it started to look like we’d never get a break, things did start to move in our direction.
I had helped several groups who were thinking of buying Aston Villa with background and advice, and one fine day the dream of being rid of Doug came to fruition.
I’m not saying it was us that brought it about but with what was to follow, I was heavily leant on to talk with the guys managing the takeover, and also had dealings with the incoming group who were discussing what needed to be done. I am told by one of them (whom I am still friends with to this day) that we were instrumental and seen as a massive help. We did exactly what they needed: agitated for change without being abusive or unprofessional.
One site wrote at the time:
‘In Villa Fans Combined, Aston Villa boast perhaps the most active and organised supporters’ group in the game and after such difficult times in recent years, Ellis would do well to give them the responsibility to shape the future direction of the club.’
(Tribal Football. From the Editor – August 06, 2006)
That’ll do for me. If you are going to do something, stand by what you are doing and do it well.
Forum thread: Click Here….
(I’m making a tentative return to writing, something I’ve done for 20 years now, following yet more brain ache issues and my 14th operation. I was close to hanging up the keyboard, but I’ll see how it goes. Hopefully this article is error free! Right now, the lights are on but no one is home so to speak!)