During coverage of Aston Villa's exposure of Tottenham's frailties on Monday night, there was a glimpse of a nondescript, relaxed figure in the directors' box. Villa followers apart, how many viewers could immediately name that man? Few, you suspect. Randy Lerner is a name that could have been invented for headline writers to lampoon, but they have never had the opportunity. The coverage the Villa owner receives ranges from negligible to unqualified approbation. In fantasy football, every club would have one.
In reality, every team crave one. The American may possess all manner of foibles we have yet to discover, but for the moment he represents a species thought to be nearing extinction: a football club owner with a positive approval rating.
Admittedly, there is an element of ABD here; Anyone But Deadly. And it is true that Doug Ellis didn't always get it right and certainly had his critics at Villa Park. But he did what few other chairmen may have done, that is meticulously to vet his successor's background, integ-rity and good intent (as fortune would have it, he also secured the appointment of one of Britain's finest managers, too, before standing down).
As Newcastle followers survey the damage inflicted on their own club, they would no doubt cast an envious eye at Villa, a club of roughly similar stature in the English game, and ponder the question: why not us?
While Villa quietly flourish, Newcastle flounder. Mike Ashley, the sportswear retailer who bought the club and acquired their debts in 2006, now cannot wait to return to the reclusion from which he emerged. In another city, at another time, he might have invested considerably less than the quarter of a billion he has spent thus far and realised his ambitions. But he bought Newcastle. He claims he did so because he loved football. If so, it will long remain a mystery as to why he embraced a club who have a long history of resembling a demanding, but rarely satisfied, marital partner. The only rational act has been his decision to seek a separation.
Though Villa's faithful long chastised Ellis, belief was always their stave. They possessed a faith that one day, from over the M38 flyover, a reassuring light would shine. From England's second city, they hoped.
In fact, Lerner comes from the American city that never sleeps. But that fact has become incidental. At the time of writing, Villa are fourth. They could finish among the leading six. So, too, could Newcastle, under astute stewardship, on and off the field. They were never likely to do so under Ashley. Even less likely to do so under Ashley and Kevin Keegan. This was a manager of convenience, brought back, one suspects, so that Ashley could ingratiate himself with supporters. But Keegan at the evening of his career was never going to be the man we witnessed at St James' Park in the early to mid-Nineties. As he readily conceded,he had not been a close followerof the game for three years.
And football has changed. It would not have been what the club's fans wanted to hear, but Ashley was correct in his 1,647-word statement last weekend when he claimed that one man alone could not manage a football club, and that it required a structure and people to "scout the world looking for world-class players and stars of the future".
His mistake was in how he sought to achieve all this. An extra tier of management, the "director of football", sounds progressive, but generally it does not fit well into English football culture. Managers don't like it. Fans are suspicious of it. Even clubs such as Tottenham, who employ a foreign coach who understands that culture, have encountered problems.
Just as at St James' Park, where Dennis Wise is depicted as the bête noire, significantly it is the position of Spurs' sporting director, Damien Comolli, which is under focus following the club's indifferent start. The trium-virate of chairman/owner, chief executive and manager, as exemplified by the Manchester United and Arsenal models, has been successful down the ages. Why change it?
What Ashley discovered, belatedly, is that too much about Newcastle is concerned with an excessive clamour for swift success and excessive emotional investment in the club. A woman interviewed on Match of the Day suggested her life had been ruined by recent events at St James' Park. The TV pundit Mark Lawrenson's gentle reproach that she was somewhat overstating things, resulted, by Monday, with opprobrium being heaped upon him. Over-expectancy inevitably leads to panic moves, a heavy turnover of managers – seven in the 11 years since Keegan was last at St James' Park – and purchasesof too many modest players.
So why would any buyer look at Newcastle now? HBOS found a saviour in Lloyds TSB. No-boss Newcastle are not so fortunate. It is a buyers' market. There is a fond belief that sugar sheikhs are queuing up to ride in from the desert to get their hands on the Premier League brand. Even if that were true, Liverpool would be the more treasured prize. Newcastle's plight is not helped by the stance of their more vocal followers. Individually they may, indeed, be among the game's most passionate fans. As a mob, they hardly contribute to the best marketing package. Neither does Ashley's response to them that he was "now a dad who can't take his kids to a football game". Almost certainly he overstates his concerns, but it is scarcely the most attractive selling point.
In the end, Ashley's so-called surrender may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory for Newcastle's followers, who should have taken a lesson from the Old West of Randy Lerner's homeland. You don't find too many volunteers to become the new sheriff when the previous incumbent has just been run out of town.
FA fail to play their cards right over Terry and Guthrie
At times you despair. You would have thought the Football Association would have got to grips with their disciplinary process by now and created a coherent system, under which punishments would, by and large, fit the crime. But two incidents, and the governing body's response to them, which resulted in Chelsea's John Terry being available to face Man-chester United today and Newcastle's Danny Guthrie available again in three games' time, will have left many perplexed.
Let it be stressed straight away that John Terry's cynical rugby tackle on Manchester City striker Jo was not dangerous. However, it was so unsporting, so alien to the spirit of the game, that to most impartial eyes it merited a straight red. Which is why the referee, Mark Halsey, deemed it not a professional foul (there were covering players) but serious foul play. Most of us would concur with that, whatever the legal niceties that Chelsea presented to an FA disciplinary commission. But apparently, we would be wrong, and so would Halsey, who has become the latest victim of that absurd system under which good referees are somehow made to "pay for their crimes", and was yesterday officiating Chester against Shrewsbury. Meanwhile, Terry, the Chelsea and England captain, got off scot free.
And so, in a sense, has Guthrie. Admittedly, his awful lunge on Hull City's Craig Fagan was probably borne out of frustration last Saturday, and he clearly did not intend the result to be a broken leg. Still, if you kick out with such lack of thought, you merit a draconian sanction. But no. The FA say they do not have the power to extend automatic suspensions, only to issue an additional charge (as happened to Ben Thatcher following his assault on Pedro Mendes in 2006). So why not do the same on this occasion?
We can be reassured, though, that the FA "are reviewing disciplinary procedures... and a sliding scale for red-card offences is one option under consideration." In your own time. In the meantime, football law, and its implementation, looks like an ass.