Graham Kelly: 'Deadly' Doug can still go on a charm offensive

Ellis is a complex character who seeks approval but takes rueful pleasure from the notoriety he has acquired
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The Independent Football

From The Silver Stallion by James Branch Cabell: "The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist fears this is true." Aston Villa's octogenarian chairman, Doug Ellis, usually takes a rosy view of the club's fortunes and their diehard fans, campaigning for his retirement, occupy the other side of this equation. Last week the newly recruited chief executive, Bruce Langham, 52, who takes up his position "running the club day-to-day" next month, surely added himself to the ranks of the optimists of the world by saying: "Doug wants to take a lesser role in the club and take a back seat."

From The Silver Stallion by James Branch Cabell: "The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist fears this is true." Aston Villa's octogenarian chairman, Doug Ellis, usually takes a rosy view of the club's fortunes and their diehard fans, campaigning for his retirement, occupy the other side of this equation. Last week the newly recruited chief executive, Bruce Langham, 52, who takes up his position "running the club day-to-day" next month, surely added himself to the ranks of the optimists of the world by saying: "Doug wants to take a lesser role in the club and take a back seat."

Developments had been expected since last November, when the deputy chief executive, Mark Ansell, departed and it was announced Ellis would relinquish his role as chief executive. A source close to Ansell, assumed to be Ellis's heir apparent until Trevor Birch's name was briefly mentioned, had claimed at the time of the former finance director's departure that Ellis would retain control over all dealings relating to players, and no one within the game wanted to deal with him.

The counter-argument was advanced by another Villa director, the non-executive Tony Hales, who said that Ellis acknowledged he was not totally immortal. I don't wish to be unkind to "Deadly", so termed for his penchant for firing managers, but this revelation must have cheered those pessimistic Villa supporters for it has long been suspected that he would have to have been carried out of Villa Park with his boots on.

I am not sure that it would be correct to say that he is universally disliked within football, for he has continued to represent the Premier League on the Football Association Council, a seat he has held since he was first elected to the Football League Management Committee in 1988. Rather, his fellow chairmen have always recognised a shared love of money and were prepared to regard his naïve conceit with affectionate tolerance, as it was so transparent.

As transparent as the envelope on which he had jotted down details of the Football League's plans for a competition to rival the FA Cup at the time of the Premier League breakaway in 1991. Unfortunately the envelope, with his name, address and handwriting on the back, was left in the FA reception area for journalists to pick up.

He had clearly been receptive to the Premier League proposals though, he informed me, on the previous occasion the matter had been discussed, entry to the proposed 18-team league was to be dependent on criteria rather than League position (Villa weren't doing too well at the time).

Doubtless the Premier League and Villa's membership of it was critical to Ellis's vision for the club, for in his autobiography, Deadly, he claims to have seen the multi-million-pound path that football would take more clearly than anyone else back in the 1960s.

Perhaps the story of how he began life in a poor family with a widowed mother gives a clue as to how he fell foul of the authorities in his early days in charge at Villa, by laying out £1,000 to clothe a young player from a poor background.

It could also be that Ellis's recollections of poverty provided a ready stimulus for him to become involved with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children's Full Stop campaign against child abuse.

Last month he agreed to chair the Birmingham-based Midlands specialist investigation service, which handles complex or large-scale cases across several counties, drawing fulsome compliments from his colleague Dave Richards, the chairman of the Premier League, who said it was a wonderful thing he was doing, and from NSPCC regional officials, who paid tribute to the biggest gift the Birmingham area had received.

Ellis, who pioneered package deal holidays, was a millionaire before he was 40 and one of the first to take advantage when the rules prohibiting directors' remuneration were relaxed in the early 1980s. After the flotation of Aston Villa in 1997, his annual remuneration, comprising fees and dividends, soared over the £500,000 mark.

Dear old Doug. "There'll never be another," as the comedian Max Miller used to say, so enjoy or despair of him while you can. "Football managers are like women - they say no when they mean yes," he once opined on television.

This was the courtly host with the traditional charm who put the Luton directors and ladies so much at ease at Villa Park with the extent of his hospitality at last season's League Cup tie. But then he had to spoil it by showing off his record salmon catch.

Ellis is a complex character who still seeks approval, yet takes a rueful pleasure from such notoriety as he has acquired. His long-suffering air of superiority is more severely punctured by being ignored than by being insulted.

grahamkelly@btinternet.com

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