Deadliest of enemies: The end of an era at Villa Park

It was not a good idea to fall out with the frugal Doug Ellis, as most of his managers discovered. But the Aston Villa chairman - whose 38-year reign is about to come to an end - did much for his club beyond limiting their spending
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The Independent Football

Doug Ellis had often mused on the circumstances in which he might relinquish control of Aston Villa. Once he said it would be the day he could no longer stand. Then he promised to quit when he was no longer able to hold his own mentally with the "young whippersnappers in this business". In the event it took the promise of at least £20m for the sale of his shares - and the reassurance that the club he ran so prudently would be in the safe hands of the American billionaire Randy Lerner.

For although the 82-year-old Ellis became derided and abused by a substantial section of supporters - as well as ridiculed by some of his fellow club chairmen and more than one of the 13 managers with whom he parted - no one should doubt that Villa's healthy financial position and relatively small debts made them an attractive proposition for the owner of the Cleveland Browns NFL franchise.

This reporter's mind goes back to the turn of the decade and a pre-season interview at Bodymoor Heath, Villa's rural training ground. I asked John Gregory about his relations with "Deadly Doug" - expecting a tirade along the lines which later marked the beginning of the end for his tenure as manager.

Biting his lip, he explained that Ellis believed that some comparable clubs, notably Leeds United, were spending money they did not have. Leeds, argued the chairman, would reap the whirlwind (they were just about to embark on a run to the Champions' League semi-finals). Ellis, who proved to be prescience personified, was not prepared to risk Villa's long-term stability for short-term thrills.

His sense of innate caution, which dissenting fans have long interpreted as a parsimonious lack of ambition, has to be placed in a historical context. When Ellis, the son of a widowed mother from a poor family in Cheshire, was invited on to the Villa board in 1968 (having made his fortune from selling package holidays and come into football three years earlier as a director of Birmingham City), the club were in the relegation zone of the old Second Division and technically insolvent.

For the past three decades, Villa have been outside the top flight for only one season, although it was during a three-year hiatus in his involvement that they won the League title and European Cup.

In many ways, Ellis' first managerial appointment, that of the widely travelled Tommy Docherty late in 1968, came to define his public image. With the great old club sliding towards the Third Division, he fired Docherty. "The Doc" would later recall how his chairman had initially said he was right behind his manager. "I told him I'd sooner have him in front of me," he said, "where I could see him." The "Deadly" nickname was coined by Jimmy Greaves, yet Ellis maintained he enjoyed his notoriety, insisting it was good publicity for Villa.

Intriguingly, Ellis claimed in his autobiography, Deadly!, that he had twice rejected approaches during the early 1970s by Martin O'Neill's mentor, Brian Clough, to take over as Villa manager. On the last occasion he said he told Clough: "It would never work - there's only one boss at Aston Villa, and that's me."

Infighting in the Villa boardroom led to his briefly being ousted as chairman in 1975, by which time two promotions had restored Villa to what is now the Premiership. Four years later, during a boardroom power struggle, he called an EGM to remove Ron Bendall over what he considered irregularities in the latter's shareholding. He lost the vote and spent three years - the years of the greatest triumphs in Villa's history - in an exile which included a 10-day stint as chairman of Wolves.

Ellis bought back control from Bendall for £465,000 six months after Peter Withe's goal against Bayern Munich in Rotterdam completed Villa's 10-year rise from finishing behind Halifax Town to conquering a continent. To those who point to his absence as a factor in Villa's successes, first under Ron Saunders and then Tony Barton, he replies with what some acquaintances regard as typical immodesty that it was his "1968 Revolution" which rescued a moribund institution and made it possible.

Within five years of Dennis Mortimer lifting the European Cup, Villa were relegated. Managers had come and gone - Graham Turner was fired after being invited to "come and smell the roses" in Ellis' garden at Little Aston - and it took the inspired appointment of Graham Taylor to ensure that they stayed down only a year. After Taylor became England manager in 1990, having guided Villa to second place, Ellis convened a media conference. A figure vaguely familiar to those who had observed the World Cup finals closely sat nervously alongside him as the chairman asked: "How many of you know who this is?" No one recognised Dr Jozef Venglos, the former Czechoslovakia coach, and he was still an unknown quantity when he left within 12 months.

At another press gathering, when the avid deep-sea angler unveiled Ron Atkinson as his big catch from Sheffield Wednesday, Ellis interrupted an answer by the new manager. "See, he's interfering already," remarked Atkinson to guffaws. Three years later - with Villa losing eight out of nine and the chairman increasingly of the view that "Big Ron" was spending too much time analysing other teams' failings on TV - he issued his P45.

Brian Little's reign was marked by some astute signings - Gareth Southgate, for one - and the 1996 League Cup final rout of Leeds. Little worked well with Ellis, but the manager's unsettled personal circumstances, allied to the pressure of handling wayward £7m forward Stan Collymore, led to another vacancy.

Meanwhile, the stadium had undergone a facelift in preparation for Euro '96. Ken Bates, then the Chelsea chairman, took a dig at Ellis' perceived vanity when he quipped: "They're building another stand at Villa Park. They're going to call it The Other Doug Ellis Stand."

Steve Stride, Ellis' loyal lieutenant, who is now operations director at Villa, came up with the idea of plucking a former Villa player, John Gregory from Wycombe, as Little's successor. Gregory had a striking impact, leading Villa on a long unbeaten run at the start of 1998-99 with an all-English side. But familiar cracks gradually appeared in the relationship between manager and chairman, mainly over what Gregory felt were inadequate transfer budgets. At one stage, Ellis accidentally crashed his Rolls Royce (number plate AV1) into Gregory's Range Rover (V1LLA) on the club car park. Soon after, Villa lost their first FA Cup final in 43 years, in 2000, and the two were on collision course again.

Gregory accused Ellis of "living in a time warp". Yes, his door was always open, but his wallet was closed (perhaps unfair given the arrival of Juan Pablo Angel for a club record £9.6m), while the training ground, once Ellis' pride and joy, was dubbed a "shanty town". A public apology followed - even though banners on the Holte End suggested the public were largely on Gregory's side - and another manager left.

Graham Taylor's return lasted a season before he, too, walked away three years ago in May, hinting at a lack of direction from the top. In came David O'Leary, the very man who had once splashed Leeds' cash so freely, in an odd-couple partnership which many predicted would soon fall apart. Again, there was an early surge of good results, before the familiar pattern of demonstrations, votes of no confidence at Villa's annual meeting and rumours of a takeover kicked in.

Ellis, who also served on the FA's international committee for several years, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003. He beat that and last year recovered from triple heart bypass surgery to resume his place in the directors' box. After Villa overcame Birmingham 3-1 last spring, he shook hands with for once contented supporters as they passed along the gangway below, looking like a Roman emperor.

Soon, though, his empire will be no more. O'Leary did not last long enough to witness the prospect of fresh investment turning into a reality. O'Neill, his 14th manager, will serve him for a matter of weeks. Rightly or wrongly - for his self-image is as a visionary - it is a change the Villa fans are unlikely to mourn.

In through the out door: Doug Ellis's 14 managerial appointments

* (1) TOMMY DOCHERTY Appointed 1968 Sacked 1970

* (2) VIC CROWE Appointed 1970 Sacked 1974

* (3) RON SAUNDERS Appointed 1974 Resigned 1982

* (4) TONY BARTON Appointed 1982 Sacked 1984

* (5) GRAHAM TURNER Appointed 1984 Sacked 1986

* (6) BILLY MCNEILL Appointed 1986 Sacked 1987

* (7) GRAHAM TAYLOR Appointed 1987 Became England manager 1990

* (8) DR JO VENGLOS Appointed 1990 Resigned 1991

* (9) RON ATKINSON Appointed 1991 Sacked 1994

* (10) BRIAN LITTLE Appointed 1994 Resigned 1998

* (11) JOHN GREGORY Appointed 1998 Resigned 2002

* (12) GRAHAM TAYLOR Appointed 2002 Resigned 2003

* (13) DAVID O'LEARY Appointed 2003 Left by mutual consent 2006

* (14) MARTIN O'NEILL Appointed 2006

...and how they saw him

"The chairman said he was right behind me. I told him I'd rather have him in front where I could see him" - Tommy Docherty

"You wanted him to take a financial gamble and push that bit further. That is what made me walk." - John Gregory

"The results weren't good but if I thought the situation could have been changed I'd have stuck it out." - Graham Taylor

"My way of handling "Deadly" was by and large to ignore him. I didn't see any need to pop into the ground every day for a cosy chat. As a result I would get a deluge of memos and faxes. Those of relevance I attended to. The rest went in the bin." - Ron Atkinson

"A lot of people thought I left because of Doug, but that wasn't so. I had to resign because of family problems. Doug and I got on well." - Brian Little