Deadly serious about Villa Elder statesman is convinced he has the team and the manager to capture silverware.

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WHEN JOHN PRESCOTT can rise from bar steward who once served G & Ts on board cruise ships to dispensing the nation's transport policy, anything is possible in today's supposed meritocracy. Similarly, it must be said, there is no earthly reason why, midway through an interview with Doug Ellis, morning coffee should not be brought to our table by the Premier League chairman, Dave Richards. "Oh, thank you so much, David. Very kind," the Aston Villa chairman responds in mock condescension, to a certain hilarity all round. Now, whether the gesture was testimony to the affection in which the elder statesman of the Premier League is held or merely that Richards was the only person capable of heaving a heavy tray up a spiral staircase to the fifth floor of the Premier League offices off Bayswater Road, in London, is difficult to assess. Probably the latter.

WHEN JOHN PRESCOTT can rise from bar steward who once served G & Ts on board cruise ships to dispensing the nation's transport policy, anything is possible in today's supposed meritocracy. Similarly, it must be said, there is no earthly reason why, midway through an interview with Doug Ellis, morning coffee should not be brought to our table by the Premier League chairman, Dave Richards. "Oh, thank you so much, David. Very kind," the Aston Villa chairman responds in mock condescension, to a certain hilarity all round. Now, whether the gesture was testimony to the affection in which the elder statesman of the Premier League is held or merely that Richards was the only person capable of heaving a heavy tray up a spiral staircase to the fifth floor of the Premier League offices off Bayswater Road, in London, is difficult to assess. Probably the latter.

Nevertheless, one imagines that an admiration exists from his junior counterparts for Ellis's durability in a role where vilification tends to come with the invariably hostile territory. This December will mark the 31st anniversary of his Villa Park tenure. Despite Ellis's 75 years, his many detractors will not be heartened to learn that there is absolutely no suggestion of the man they call "Deadly" - and he is not averse to using that epithet himself - retiring from the fray.

The League's chairmen are due to assemble later this particular morning, appropriately enough within rhetoric ear-shot of Speakers' Corner where, on Sundays, assorted characters stand on soap boxes to be abused by the assembled throng. A bit like football chairmen in the directors' box on Saturdays.

As for Ellis, you wonder they haven't created some kind of black country game reserve for him, such are the attacks on his rhino-like hide by supporters and pundits alike. After all this time, he deserves to be a protected species. Yet, apart from his tendency to forget names, few would want to engage him in a battle of intellectual wits. Under interrogation he can see the blind-side run coming from a considerable distance. Eventually, you decide, it is better to attempt the direct approach.

"So, Doug Ellis, what is it with you and managers?" The vaguest suggestion of distress crosses his face. "To be fair, although there's been 11 managers in roughly 30 years, there's only been seven I've sacked," he says. "You've got to remember that Graham Taylor left to become England manager and Ron Saunders went to Birmingham City and Brian Little and Jo Venglos asked to leave. Of the remainder, that's nearly one in four years. How many clubs and chairman can claim an average of nearly four years a manager?

"I hate sacking anyone. I don't sleep the night before. It's something I have to build myself up for, but I have always given it a lot of consideration and I've thought it was right at the time for every individual. I've no regrets."

He adds: "Graham Turner was such a nice lad. He'd been running Shrewsbury and never played outside the Second and Third Divisions. Many of the team he inherited had played in our European Cup season and they didn't respect him in the same way. He had a difficult job and I hated sacking him. I walked around my garden with him and I'm afraid we both shed tears.

"It was difficult with Tommy Docherty, too. He's still a great pal of mine. He only lasted 13 months, but did such a good job for Villa. I know he uses me in all his after-dinner speeches. What's that famous line of his? 'The chairman's said he's right behind me; I'd rather see him in front of me where I can see him'."

Even those who condemn him as Dictatorial Doug or Egotistical Ellis cannot impugn him as lacking in selective powers. Some notable managerial names have overseen the fortunes of the Claret and Blues. From Saunders, who brought a championship to Villa Park in 1981 (the team under Tony Barton went on to win the European Cup the following season),to John Gregory. Yet, August was still with us when the first presumed evidence of disharmony between chairman and manager appeared this season. It followed the 1-0 home defeat of Middlesbrough, watched by just 28,083. "A storm in a tea cup," sniffed Ellis. "All I said was, 'Well done, mate, it's just a flipping pity we can't get the crowds in'." Gregory believed that Ellis was alluding to the fact that the low crowd was attributable to uninspiring earlyseason performances. "Unknown to me, I think he took it the wrong way," says the chairman. "However, he's apologised since and it hasn't affected our relationship one iota."

Ellis explains: "On the question of interference, it's a complete myth. But mud sticks. Ron Atkinson would like to say I meddle, because he was looking for an excuse for why I sacked him. I have a simple philosophy and that is the manager has complete control of the playing side of the club: coaching, discipline, choosing the team, selling. I just deal with the finance, but we work very closely together."

By Ellis' sacking-rate calculations, Gregory appears reasonably secure. In situ for 20 months, he has some way to go before such a possibility arises yet, and the chairman is clearly convinced that the man he brought in from Wycombe possesses the tactical and man-management acumen to restore Villa in European competition. It took him just three hours to be convinced of that fact, after Brian Little had resigned.

"As a player and as a man he seemed ideal, but a couple of hundred yobbos gathered outside my office for two hours, demanding to know 'Who's Gregory?' Now, it gives you satisfaction to have been proved right, though you don't get anyone ringing and admitting, 'I was wrong'."

Whatever Ellis says about the relationship with his manager, there will clearly be no for excuses if tangible success is not achieved with some alacrity. He says nothing directly, but the inference is clear enough that, to his mind, the potter has sufficient clay to mould a team capable of being fired into a gleaming finished product.

"I've spent £41.2m on new players since John Gregory arrived, and sold £23.6m worth," Ellis says pointedly. "Now we have a Premier League standard player with experience, to replace virtually anyone injured in John's chosen first-team squad."

He adds: "I'll do everything in my power to make sure that Aston Villa have some more silverware, preferably via the Champions' League. There's no reason why we shouldn't. We've got some excellent professionals individually. The art of the game is orchestrating them and that is the manager's job. In John Gregory, we have a very hardworking and enthusiastic young manager."

One suspects that Ellis yearns for an era when players and managers did not possess the power and off-field profile that they do today, though he insists on declaring his admiration for today's footballers. "I'm just a frustrated would-be professional player who in the end wasn't good enough," he concedes. "Today, you have prima donnas and they're highly paid. Their intelligence, across the board, is a lot higher than it was in my day. I think Comic Cuts was the typical newspaper in the dressing-room in my day. Today, it's the serious newspapers. We actually got complaints that there was only one public telephone in the changing-rooms, because they wanted to ring their stockbroker after every training session."

Even the errant Stan Collymore, who returned from a loan period at Fulham on Friday, after failing to agree personal terms for a permanent move, will be regarded as the prodigal son, at least by Ellis though not necessarily by his manager.

Gregory reportedly believes that Villa should get shot of the enigma whom Little brought from Liverpool at a giveaway price if necessary. "I know we wouldn't get £7m," says Ellis, "but I have to balance the books and the fact remains that he's got more natural ability than probably 60 per cent of strikers in the world." You suggest that his mere presence could be disruptive. "You're wrong, you see, just ask the Fulham directors and they will tell you how popular he was in the dressing-room." So, does Ellis believe that Villa's most expensive purchase will rediscover his former prowess following a period at Craven Cottage and The Priory? "It does look as if he's on his way."

Ellis has survived the worst barbs that are hurled at him because of his thorough self-belief and the fact his affection for Villa is without question. He has also learned to escape, when required, with a love for horseracing. His regular companion at the races used to be Omar Sharif.

He loves to recount the story of the day he offered his autobiography Deadly to the Queen during a royal visit he attended. "I had a copy of my book, so gave it to her, inscribed. 'I hope you like this, Ma'am. It's a good read,' I said to her. She replied, 'Thank you very much Mr Ellis, I shall enjoy reading that.' She walked off and half an hour later, she still had it under her arm. She hadn't given it to a lady-in-waiting which she normally does with flowers." He may not have the unqualified support of the Villa faithful. But at least nobody can say that Ellis doesn't have royal approval.

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