Made it, Ma! Top of the world!
Knight of the long knives!
Once the news had hit the headlines that Doug Ellis had been knighted in the New Year honours list, it was inevitable that some serious debate would breakout amongst Villa fans, as to the qualities and demerits of the old rascal were compared.
Obviously, even though the chaps on Football Focus took it upon themselves to mention the subject in passing, thankfully, Villa’s former owner’s knighthood had nothing to do with any recognition of his contribution to football, and was awarded for his services to charidee. Two League Cups and a claim to have invented the bicycle-kick, are hardly contributions to the national game worthy of a knighthood, so dissers of the Doug can rest assured on that point.
When it comes to assessing his achievements at Villa, he seems to have just about had enough success, in terms of two League Cups, an FA Cup final and two second-place finishes in the top division to compensate for the damage he did by getting the champions of Europe relegated, within five years of taking the reins.
What seems to emerge when looking at Villa history, is that old Doug would not have chosen young Doug, as the preferred option, judged by the criteria he has recently outlined. Young Doug just didn’t have enough capital to make a success of the business as he took it over, which resulted in him moving out the ageing stars, and replacing them with cheaper alternatives.
The proof that it was more about money than age was the sale of Gordon Cowans, in his prime, and a young Paul Rideout who scored 14 goals in 28 league games, before he was cashed in for some lovely lira. The sale of Colin Gibson, who had emerged as one of the most exciting midfield players in the country, was the final blow which left Villa rock-bottom and relegated.
The general accusation against Doug is that in his absolute determination to make Villa his train-set and his train-set alone, he made it impossible to attract other investment which might have allowed, a less damaging restructuring, while maintaining Villa’s First Division status.
So he took over the Villa brand at its 70 year apogee and immediately set about taking it back more than ten years.
The million-dollar question remains, as to whether the Villa brand, even at its absolute peak was amenable, or not, to the sort of development, which would have allowed Villa to compete with Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal.
Unfortunately for us Villa mythmakers, the evidence seems to be very much in Doug’s favour. The attendance figures for Villa Park, when Villa were at their absolute fabulous best, look very poor considering, and it was not until the championship looked possible did the glory-hunters start going down to see Villa play, rather than the opposition. The figures are just lousy and it wasn’t until Birmingham City turned up in December, that a crowd of over forty-thousand is recorded. Only three times did Villa manage to fill the ground, and on the day of the last home game, of that glorious season, only 38000 turned up to watch them thrash Middlesbrough 3-0.
57000 filled Highbury to see Arsenal clinch third-place, when they beat Villa on the last day of the season.
The attendance figures for Villa Park during the 1989-90 season, when Villa finished runners-up, are even worse, with only two games attracting more than forty-thousand – Man United and Arsenal. There are half a dozen games where less that twenty-thousand thought it worthwhile to turn up.
The figures for Big Ron’s team at its dazzling best in 1992-93, are equally disappointing, and that was a fantastic team to watch and only missed out on the title right at the very end of the season. There were just too many occasions when less than twenty-thousand turned up for a home game.
I can’t think of a better football product than Big Ron’s team: charismatic manager, exciting style of play, top players, credible challenge etc.
So if Sir Deadly were to make the case that trying to build the Villa brand by pouring in money, was flogging a dead horse, we might have to accept that he had a point. And, some of us might wonder if Randy Lerner had reached the same conclusion.
But alas, Sir Deadly eventually painted himself into a corner, as he increasingly robbed Peter to pay Paul.
Halfway through the first decade of the new century it seemed that Doug’s business model for Villa had become unworkable, and his idea of building up the club, entirely from capital generated within the Villa business, looked to be putting Villa’s access to the big TV money at serious risk.
By the time the 2005-6 season had ended he had a team which could only accumulate 42 points in an historically poor Premiership and a half-built training ground. The value of Villa shares had plummeted to a fraction of the 1997 flotation price.
By all normal measures of business success, Doug could be said to have failed, and the substantial amount of money the new owners needed to put in to bring the club up to scratch, represents a measure of that failure.
So, it seems fair to conclude that Sir Herbert Douglas Ellis, overall, never quite succeeded at Villa, and never quite failed either, but no one can doubt that he certainly made a few bob out of the club, and whether it was from paying himself nearly £300k a year for running it, or from various windfalls he enjoyed from floating, or selling the club, he certainly got himself in the enviable position of being able to enjoy the fame and celebrity which comes with owning a football team, while seriously enriching himself in the process.
It seems certain that, if not directly, his ownership of Aston Villa football club was instrumental, in getting him what he always wanted – a shed load of cash and a knighthood.
Not bad for a former booking clerk at Frames Travel.
Made it, Ma! Top of the world!
Keep the faith!