Deadly's legacy will have lively potential

As Doug Ellis considers finally giving up control at Aston Villa, for the fans his exit cannot come soon enough, writes Phil Shaw
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The Independent Football

Now, after a reign that has continued since 1968 with only a three-year hiatus - during which Villa lifted the League title and the European Cup - it looks likely that the wishes of a highly vocal section of the club's supporters will be granted. Should the £64.4m bid by the Comer Homes Group prove successful, the Ellis era will finally be behind them.

With him, according to the anti-Ellis faction, would go the lack of ambition and the over-zealous protection of the purse strings which they allege have prevented Villa from fulfilling their potential as one of the biggest clubs in the country, if not the continent. Few things, of course, are ever quite that black and white. Ellis's legacy, if he really does step aside, will be a club well placed to push on to greater things. The stadium has been improved beyond recognition, even if Ken Bates, during his time in charge of Chelsea, did hint at the self-aggrandising side of Ellis's character when he noted that Villa were to build a new stand opposite the one bearing the chairman's name. "What's he going to call it?" queried Bates. "The Other Doug Ellis Stand?"

More pertinently, perhaps, for all the reputed reluctance of Ellis to compete in the transfer market with Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal - names that the Midlands' biggest club should theoretically be matching - his careful attitude towards spending means that Villa were never in danger of a Leeds-like crash.

Ellis has long been determined that when the Sky-inflated Premiership bubble burst Villa would still be financially viable. He pointed to Leeds at the height of Peter Ridsdale's "spend, spend, spend" madness - and indeed at Chelsea as they amassed huge debts under Bates - and cautioned that it was a castle built on sand. Villa's more restless followers took the warning as a sign of his conservatism. If only the team had been more successful, one can almost hear Ellis arguing, the package would be complete. But Villa are hovering just above the relegation zone, hardly the position the faithful anticipated when David O'Leary, the formerly free-spending Leeds manager, arrived two and a half years ago.

Like so many of his predecessors, O'Leary has occasionally let it be known that he felt his hands were tied by the budgetary restraints imposed by Ellis. For his part, the octogenarian doubtless looked back at the times he did sanction major expenditure - Brian Little's £7m for Stan Collymore and John Gregory's £9.5m on Juan Pablo Angel - and reflected on the relatively poor value for money Villa received.

O'Leary still felt enough affection for Ellis to run recklessly across the Birmingham City pitch after Villa's recent derby triumph to wave to him. Some of the Irishman's 12 predecessors during Ellis's time have looked less kindly on the former travel agent. John Gregory, in particular, criticised him as "stuck in a time warp" through a newspaper interview, after which the manager had to make a humiliating apology.

Ellis, who was briefly a director at Birmingham and Wolves when Villa were conquering Europe, has fired seven managers. Yet he says: "It's not boards that sack managers. It's the players. If they're not responding to what he's trying to do, then the manager has to go."

With the interest of Brian and Luke Cromer, the Irish brothers whose company reputedly has assets of £1bn, it may be time for Ellis to do likewise. He had triple heart bypass surgery over the summer, soon after his recovery from prostate cancer. He insists he is mentally and physically sharp, challenging one fortysomething television reporter to a double-header at tennis and general knowledge.

As and when the elder statesman does relinquish control, he may hope to devote more time to passions such as horseracing and fishing. He might also update his memoirs, the predictably titled Deadly. He once presented the Queen with a signed copy, and rather typically informed everyone that "Ma'am" said she would enjoy reading it.

Royal approval will not be necessary for the take-over of Aston Villa. However, after maintaining for so long that he would not sell, Ellis will not put his seal on the deal for £5.60 per share unless it is watertight. When it comes to business, the chairman is Deadly serious. In the words of one of his sternest opponents, Jonathan Fear of Villa Fans Combined: "He might be a lot of things, but he's not an idiot."

Hard reign: Doug Ellis at Villa

POWER PLAYER

1968: Becomes chairman at Villa Park.

1975: Steps down but remains on the board.

1979: Ousted from board.

November 1982: Returns to Villa as controlling shareholder.

2004: Relinquishes chief executive role, but stays on as chairman.

34 YEARS OF ELLIS

Trophies won while on the board: Third Division champions, 1972; League Cup 1973, 1977, 1994, 1996; European Super Cup 1983.

VILLA'S DOUG-LESS THREE YEARS

Trophies won during his absence: League title 1981; European Cup 1982.

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